Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions about Biofuels
- What are biofuels?
- What are biofuels used for?
- How much biofuel is used in the United States?
- How does biotechnology contribute to biofuels?
- What are the environmental benefits of biofuels?
- What are the economic benefits of biofuels?
- What is the future of biofuels?
Biofuels are alternative fuels that are made from renewable, non-petroleum sources. Examples are ethanol and biodiesel. In the United States. ethanol is made mainly from corn. Biodiesel is commonly made from soybean oil or recycled restaurant cooking oil.
Biofuels are used mainly in transportation, especially as a component of motor vehicle fuel. Most of the gasoline dispensed in the United States contains up to 10 percent ethanol. Biodiesel is used in vehicles with diesel engines, including many commercial trucks.
More than 13 billion gallons of ethanol and more than 1 billion gallons of biodiesel are expected to be used in the United States in 2012.1 The usage of biofuels is supported by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a federal law that sets targets for usage of alternative fuels.
Approximately 38 percent of the nation's corn supply will go into ethanol production in 2012, according to USDA, and from 13 to 15 percent of soybean oil will go into biodiesel production.2
Biotechnology improves the yields of corn and soybean crops in several ways:
- Allowing more targeted use of herbicides.
- Facilitating the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices, such as no-till farming since tilling — plowing up the soil to kill weeds — is needed far less frequently.
- Improving crop resistance to destructive insects.
- Improving performance under drought conditions, with both transgenic and advanced hybrid varieties of corn that can show yield improvements as high as 15 percent.
These traits allow the farmer usually to produce more corn and soybeans on the same land when compared with conventional crop varieties while reducing the environmental impact of farming. By increasing the production of corn and soybeans, biotechnology helps make the principal feedstocks of alternative fuels more available.
Ethanol contains 35% oxygen. Adding oxygen to fuel results in more complete fuel combustion, reducing harmful tailpipe emissions. Ethanol is non-toxic, water soluble and quickly biodegradable. Ethanol is a renewable fuel produced from plants, unlike petroleum-based fossil fuels that have a limited supply and are the major contributor of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, a greenhouse gas (GHG).3
Today, the domestic biofuels industry is already creating jobs, helping to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and providing downward pressure on gas prices at the pump. It is now contributing more than 400,000 jobs and $53 billion in new activity to the nation's economy. A recent report found that additional job creation from advanced biofuels production under the RFS could reach 807,000 by 2022.4
The more than 13 billion gallons of domestic ethanol produced and consumed last year alone reduced oil imports by more than 445 million barrels, a volume greater than the total annual oil imports from Saudi Arabia. Advanced biofuels production under the RFS could further reduce U.S. petroleum imports by nearly $70 billion by 2022. Current use of ethanol as 10 percent of the nation's gasoline supply is also helping to dampen the impact of high gasoline prices.4
Federal law requires the continuing use of biofuels in motor gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the use of ethanol blends up to 15 percent, in addition to the usual 10 percent blend. In addition, 85 percent ethanol blends ("E85") are becoming more available and more popular with motorists with compatible vehicles. So the demand for feedstock will only increase for the domestic market.
The U.S. military is also interested in greatly increasing its use of biofuels as the cost of petroleum products continues to increase and questions about the petroleum supply line linger. Advanced biofuels represent the best option for meeting military needs because they increase the military's ability to operate where needed while limiting the number of combat forces needed to protect supply lines. Biorefineries can be established in strategic locations around the United States, making use of local feedstocks to produce sustainable biofuels for the military.
Biotechnology will continue to help make feedstocks more abundant and available to the makers of biofuels.
1 "EPA Finalizes 2012 Renewable Fuel Standards," Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/documents/420f11044.pdf
2 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), U.S. Department of Agriculture, August 10, 2012.
3 "Ethanol Facts," Renewable Fuels Association http://www.ethanolrfa.org/pages/ethanol-facts-environment
4 "Contribution of the Ethanol Industry to the Economy of the United States ," by John M. Urbanchuk, Director, LECG LLC, February 12, 2010; "Ethanol Facts," Renewable Fuels Association, http://www.ethanolrfa.org/pages/ethanol-facts-economy