Biofuel & Biodiesel Definitions

What is the Difference Between Bioplastics and Biofuels? (FREE)

Over the years, I've grown an enormous reader population amongst "Sustainability" and "other type" of Bloggers" and I often receive the following question: Are bioplastics and biofuels the same thing? This is a FREE article

The short answer is: YES.

The longer answer is a bit more elaborated. There’s a nuance between the two. Bioplastics is a material, a polymer or a plastic. Biofuels is a fuel, a source of energy.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics is divided under 2 categories:

(1) Biodegradable and compostable: this refers to the “end-of-life” option; the degradation of the plastic / polymer through microbial and bacterial digestion.

(2) Bio-based / bio-sourced: this refers to the “sourcing” or origin of the carbon to make plastic. Biofuels and bioplastics are similar on this point. It’s about replacing fossil carbon with carbon from another origin (fauna & flora). The most common bio-based options are:

  • plants (corn, sugar cane, palm oil, camelina).
  • animal waste (slaughterhouse residues and used cooking oil).
  • algae (and seaweed);
  • bacterial origin – metabolic production of polymer by bacteria;

There’s a difference in “bio-based” feedstock technology or shall we say feedstock generations . The higher the generation, the more politically correct it is but the lower the “energy/material” yield per ton biomass.

Biofuel and Biodiesel

Biofuels are fuels produced from carbon from non-fossil origin, the corporate wording is “renewable organic materials”.┬áThere are two main types of biofuel used in cars: bioethanol and biodiesel.

  • Biofuel also called (Bio-)ethanol is an alcohol made from corn and sugarcane; it’s mainly produced by a sugar fermentation process. The word biofuel is often used as a generic word to describe bioethanol and biodiesel.
  • Biodiesel is a form of fuel used in diesel engines. Biodiesel is usually made using vegetable oils and animal fats. It’s mixed with regular diesel; ex: B2, B5, B7, B10, B20 etc. the number indicates the percentage of biodiesel mixed with petrodiesel.

Problems and Challenges of Biofuels / biodiesels

Historically, the biofuel industry has been exposed to a higher level of criticism than the bioplastics industry. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The biofuel industry is a bigger consumer of bio-based feedstock than the bioplastics industry. “Energy” production is “an sich” a bigger feedstock consumer than “plastic” production.
  • The biofuel industry is also more established than the bioplastic industry due to “regulation” in Western countries that have made the usage (blending) of biofuels and -diesel mandatory.

The criticism against biofuel and biodiesel is thus more “established” and has been adopted by many NGOs and other environmental think tanks. Let’s have a look at some of the criticism.

  • Oil World demand

The world production of crude oil is around 80-90 million barrels per day, a barrel is around 159 litres. In 2021, the global biofuel production was around 1.75 million barrels per day. The US is the world largest “biofuel” producer with 41 %.

The production of bio-based feedstock would have to be multiplied by +/- 40 times to meet the fossil production which “an sich” is practically impossible without committing a crime against the environment and humanity.

  • Additive vs. Alternative

Pure biofuels and biodiesel are never served at petrol stations; they’re blended with fossil fuel and diesel. Theoretically, they cannot be considered as an “alternative” to fossil fuel or petrol, but should be considered as a kind of bio “additive” to fossil fuel / diesel.

  • Energy Equivalence

What is the energy equivalence of 1 litres of fuel? 1 litre of petrol = 9.6 kWh and 1 litre of ethanol = 5.9 kWh. One litre of petrol has a higher energy potential than one litre of ethanol, so more ethanol has to be produced to equal crude oil.

  • Emissions

If you burn one litre of fuel, how much CO2 will you produce? 1 litre of petrol = 0.24 CO2 / per kWh and 1 litre of ethanol = 0.2 CO2 / per kWh. Both biofuel and bioethanol release approximately the same amount of CO2 in the environment.

  • Weight

How much Kg does 1 litre weighs? Petrol weighs 0.73 kg per litre and ethanol weighs 0.79 kg per litre. Weight is an important factor as fuel needs to be transported over long distances. Transport is usually a determinant factor in life cycles assessments of supply chains.

  • Fuel vs food

Using biomass for the production of fuel competes with food production, farmland and water usage. Water shortages and inflating food prices is an important disruptive factor for overall societal stability and inclusion, especially for the lower classes.

  • Intensive agriculture

Bioethanol relies on intensive agriculture: fertilisers, tractors, pesticides, fungicides, GMOs, etc. The effect of intensive agriculture has a detrimental impact on the quality of the soil and ecosystems.

  • Human rights

The sugar cane plantations in Brazil for instance date back from the slave trade; the human rights situation of the workers is still highly questionable.

Sexual and physical abuse are still a common things on palm oil plantations. Western multinational companies are closing their eyes on this problem (More on this: Rape Free Palm Oil ).

Then again, the fossil industry has blood on its hands and cannot be considered as the “Virgin Mary” (read more on this: The Oil Empire Fairy Tale)

  • Economic vs environmental interests

The US has been the driver of biofuel production and consumption. I think the largest individual consumer of biofuels is the US military. It has never been a secret that making biodiesel mandatory was driven by economic instead of environmental reasons. It was all about giving “energy money” to US agro-industrial concerns instead of just giving the money to Middle-Eastern oil sheikhs.

In Europe, the sugar industry has been a huge beneficiary of the CAP (common agricultural policy). Over the years, the CAP has been exposed to lots of criticisms such as (1) sugar is bad for your health, (2) the CAP mostly benefits big industrial concerns instead of small farmers, and (3) the CAP has been promoting intensive agricultural practices instead of sustainable practices. Bio-based feedstock need to be converted into sugar before being used by the biodiesel or bioplastics industry. In terms of EU subsidies, the “bio-economy” represents the new passport to access EU subsidies replacing the “not so politically correct” CAP.

Bio-based Plastics Challenges

We’re talking here about the “bio-based” branch of bioplastics and not about the “biodegradable” branch of bioplastics.

In theory, all the challenges of the biofuel industry could apply to bio-based plastics, but there’s another one which may also apply to the biofuel industry.

  • Corporate ownership

Almost all bioplastics companies are co-owned or have been established by the petrochemical industry.

Conclusion

Besides the fact that bioplastics is a material and biofuels is an energy source; there are more common points than differences between the two industries.

We could summarise as follow: same industry, same technologies and same production methods to produce the feedstock.

Many people, NGOs and scientists believe that biofuels / biodiesel have had very few environmental benefits and that’s it’s mostly about profit. Whether the same applies to bioplastics should become clear in the short future.

Another point has emerged over the last few years: a common political strategy between the two industries. More and more biofuels and bioplastics companies are joining forces to lobby decision makers and political institutions; which I believe is a strategic mistake for the bioplastics industry… because “biofuel” already lost the “public opinion” battle of winning the hearts of the consumers. It’s not by choice that people use biodiesel & -fuels, it’s because it has been made mandatory by law.

As a results of this, I’m receiving many questions about the difference between the two (bioplastics and biofuels).

As a teenager and in my early twenties, I would have considered myself as an “anti-fossil” believer. I saw the evil in “fossil”. However, being a blogger in the bioplastics industry, I was able to see behind the scenes of the “bio” industry and I’m still not convinced about the “benevolent” motivation of some industry players and lobbyists.

Saying that “Bio” is good and “fossil” is bad is shortsighted and dogmatic. The reality is much more complicated than this.

My personal opinion is that the biggest threat to society is not climate change or crude oil …. it’s corporate and individual greed.

Someone once told me: When you own a lot of things, eventually you become owned by your things. When you have a lot of money, money eventually owns you.

Source

What is biofuel and biodiesel – our guide

Difference Between Biofuel and Biodiesel

World Crude Oil Production (I:WCOP)

Leading countries based on biofuel production worldwide in 2021

Energy and CO2 Emissions from Common Fuels


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