Sources of electricity – biofuels

Biofuels are mostly used to replace oil as fuel in internal combustion engines, such as corn and cellulosic ethanol, jatropha, cyanobacteria, diatoms and green algae. However, some are used to create electricity, mainly from biomass (Mayfield, 2015).

Biomass uses mainly waste biomass gasification to produce electricity. Waste biomass could be poplar trees or tall grasses, but also agricultural waste (almond shells, corn stover), forest clearings and municipal solid waste. All this is cellulosic biomass, which has strong molecular connections, therefore strong forces need to be used to extract energy, such as heat, steam or acid.

The most used technique uses heating. In large vessels (called fluidized bed gasifiers) steam is pumped (because the reaction is endothermic, needs energy input, in the form of heat in this case) below the biomass (technically known as bed material) to heat it. Heated to 600-800 degrees Celsius it produces, among others, synthetic natural gas. At 400 degrees Celsius, biomass heating results in solids known as bio-coal, the process being known as torrefaction. Bio-coal has better storage qualities than waste biomass. Bio-coal and synthetic natural gas are later burn in conventional power plants to produce electricity (Herz, Thermochemical Conversion of Biomass to Fuel: Future of Energy, 2014).

Another biomass source is algae. Algae are grown in an open or closed (closed bioreactors can be flat-plate, tubular or column, each option having its specific advantages.) to environment bioreactors (also known as photobioreactors).

The biggest problem of algae is crop protection from pests, the reactors, particularly the open ones, can be very easily infested and destroyed within 48 hours. After the algae has grown in the pond, it is harvested, by either centrifuge, filter, flocullation (letting the organism settle) and dissolved air flotation, and used to produced heat, through direct combustion.

The main effort of the technology developers now is to improve Energy Return on Investment (EROI), basically to make it commercially sustainable (McBride, Production Processes for Biofuels from Algae: Future of Energy, 2014).

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