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How do biofuels work?

Posted on 14 November 2017

At Co-operative Energy, we’ve been highlighting alternative ways of producing energy that can benefit the environment. From solar panels to hydropower, renewable energy adoption is becoming increasingly popular, and we think it’s important that our customers know exactly how these green initiatives work. In this blog, we’re explaining what biofuels are, and how this green method can help us as a planet reach our sustainability goals.

What are biofuels and how do they create energy?

Biofuels are fuels that are produced from plants. Sometimes, these are then combined with traditional fuel to create a greener energy source. There are three types of biofuels, derived from different organic matter. The energy available from biofuels was originally available from the sun. Photosynthesis from plants capture this energy, which is then stored in the plants’ cells. How the energy is produced from the plants differs with each biofuel type. We’ve summarised the process below.

 How do biofuels work?

Biodiesel is created from natural oils, extracted from soybean, rapeseed, and algae. Unlike alternative petroleum products, biodiesel is a renewable form of fuel, and can be created on demand. Unsurprisingly, biodiesel uses less pollution to produce than petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel is manufactured through a process called transesterification. This splits the oil into two parts – methyl esters (biodiesel’s chemical name) and glycerine, a by-product used in beauty products. This process creates crude biodiesel, which is then refined for usage.


Ethanol is produced from the alcohol found in corn and cane sugar. Mixing ethanol with gasoline releases less carbon emissions. This form of fuel is good for the economy as it supports agriculture and creates jobs.

The first step is graining the feedstock (corn, barley) into fine powder. Then, sugar and starch from the power are turned into glucose. Sugar is dissolved into water to become glucose, while starch is transformed through a process called saccharification. The glucose is then fermented into yeast, and distilled. The water within the alcohol is removed to produce ethanol.


Biomass can be created from all kinds of organic matter, with the most well-known forms including wood chips, crops and manure. Biomass produces a renewable source of energy, offering no carbon emissions in its use.

Biomass energy can be created two ways. It can be burned in furnaces to release energy – suitable for wood chips and tree debris, or it can be produced during an animal’s digestion and excretion process, following plant consumption.

How do biofuels benefit the environment?

As countries find alternative ways to minimise their dependence on greenhouse gases, reliance on biofuel has increased. Providing an alternative to fossil fuels, biofuels come with several benefits, most notably their production of less greenhouse gases. But what are their other advantages?

Fuel security: Biofuels provide more security for countries with no oil reserves left.

Sustainable: Biofuels will not run out. Crops can be replenished to meet demand.

Economical security: As biofuels rely heavily on agriculture, this form of energy provides job security for farmers, and keeps the economy growing.

Less vehicle maintenance: Biofuels are adaptable to vehicle engines, and keep the engine running for longer. This means less vehicle maintenance.

Self-sustaining system: Although burning biofuels creates carbon dioxide as a by-product, it is used to grow more plants for energy.

What are the disadvantages of biofuel?

Costly to produce: From planting the crops to extracting and converting, producing biofuel can be expensive as it involves vast systems, land and equipment.

Monoculture affects soil quality: Biofuels rely on the same crops (monoculture), and growing these year after year can rid the soil of vital nutrients. Crop rotation is usually recommended to keep the earth in good condition, but this isn’t possible with biofuel harvesting.

Industrial pollution: Although biofuels create less pollution than fossil fuels, the processes of extraction and production are known to produce a small amount of emissions.

How can you live more sustainably?

At Co-operative Energy, we’re always looking for new ways our customers can live a little greener; all it takes is a few small changes to make a big difference. To assist with your sustainability goals, we’ve recently launched our Green Pioneer energy tariff, offering 100% renewable energy. There are also plenty of energy-saving tips that can help you reduce your impact on the environment – all the while saving money on your energy bills.

For the latest tricks and tips on minimising your energy bills, read all about how we can help you to reduce your usage

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