Evolution of Sustainable Biofuels: From Origin to Transportation Grade Bioethanol

12 Dec 2023

Since the invention of fire by humans up until the use of pelletized wood as a fuel for thermal plants, biomass has always been a dependable source of energy. Although using lignocellulosic feedstock as a solid biofuel is a well-known concept, the conversion of biomass into liquid fuel is a significant challenge. The more complex the chemical composition of biomass is, the more difficult and expensive the conversion process becomes. 

While research on biofuels for the majority of the 20th century closely tracked the price of petroleum, the depletion of oil reserves and rising global energy demand have led to an increased interest in sustainable biofuels in the last decade.

Compared to petroleum-derived fuels, such as gasoline, diesel, or kerosene, biofuels, such as bioethanol, have a nearly neutral carbon balance, making them a more environmentally benign choice considering the rising worries about greenhouse gas emissions. That is why, bioethanol is considered as the fuel of the future.

People are starting to understand how important it is to switch from using fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources as the world is rapidly changing. Due to the significant increase in oil prices over the past ten years, liquid biofuels have now become cost-competitive with petroleum-based transportation fuels, which has sparked a worldwide increase in research and production. 

All these factors are significantly impacting the transportation grade bioethanol market. According to a BIS Research report, the global transportation grade bioethanol market is expected to go up from $64.01 million in 2021 to $106.78 billion in 2031, growing at a CAGR of 5.4% during the forecast period 2022-2031. 

However, the evolution of transportation grade bioethanol from the first idea of using biofuel as an energy source has been a long and interesting journey. In this article, the advances and future trends of transportation grade bioethanol have been discussed in detail. 

Origin and Advances in the Development of Bioethanol Fuel

Early in the 20th century, Henry Ford, the pioneer of the modern automobile, built his Model T to refuel it with ethanol made from grains. Ford was so adamant about the benefits of using this fuel that Kansas Facilities were already generating 18 million gallons (or 54,000 tons) of it annually by 1938. However, due to the vast supply of natural gas and oil after the Second World War, interest in ethanol decreased.

Following the first oil crisis at the end of the 1970s, several oil firms started selling gasohol, a 10% ethanol-containing gasoline, to take advantage of the tax benefits offered to ethanol. However, since it already had rivals in the market, such as methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), which outperformed ethyl tert-butyl ether (ETBE) in terms of performance and cost, bioethanol did not instantly achieve the success it deserved. After MTBE was outlawed in the following years due to its high pollution levels, bioethanol came back as one of the most promising potential options for lowering CO2 emissions.

However, there is an ethical problem that primarily impacts bioethanol but also has an impact on other biologically derived fuels. The primary raw materials used to make biofuels are plants and grains, which would otherwise be used in the food sector.

Recent studies have focused on the inedible perennial herbaceous plant Miscanthus giganteus, which has a calorific content of over 4200 kcal/kg of dry matter, to address this issue. The ethical challenges might also be overcome by using lignocellulose materials, municipal solid waste, or annual wheat waste (approximately 5%, which would produce roughly 9.3 Gl of bioethanol).

Currently, transportation grade bioethanol can be utilized in a variety of ways, such as replacing 0–100% of the gasoline in flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), adding 5-10% to diesel oil for internal combustion engines, and mixing 10-85% of it with gasoline for diesel engines. In Brazil, sales of FFVs have reached 400,000 per year, and there are over 1,500,000 FFVs (mostly public transportation vehicles) on American roads. In Europe, Sweden has about 15,000 FFVs that run on E85 (85% ethanol).

Current and Future Trends to Enhance Transportation Grade Bioethanol Fuel 

Various products and strategies are being introduced in the energy industry to improve the reliability and usage of bioethanol fuel. A few of the latest developments are discussed as follows: 

1.    Promoting Ethyl Tertiary Butyl Ether as Biofuel: A high-octane bioethanol product known as ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE) is produced primarily by heating ethanol with isobutylene, a by-product of the oil refining process in the presence of different catalysts. As a result, it is regarded as somewhat renewable.

The technological and functional characteristics of ETBE are remarkably similar to and noticeably superior to those of the alcohol it is derived from. It also doesn't have the latter's volatility or miscibility issues with gasoline and has a higher-octane rating.

Since it is an ether and has oxygen in the molecule, it can help reduce the amount of pollution a vehicle emits. A recent study on the effects of the anti-detonating qualities and reid vapor pressure (RVP) of gasoline mixed with various additives concluded that adding ETBE enhances the mixture's anti-detonating qualities and lowers the vapor pressure without affecting the volatility required to start a cold engine.

ETBE produced from bioethanol (also known as bioETBE) has the same advantages as bioethanol, such as fewer pollution emissions, a better octane rating, and a decrease in crude oil imports, but without the logistical and technical issues caused by bioethanol's alcoholic character. Additionally, bioETBE aids in the spread of biofuels in the transportation industry.

2.    A Shift from First-Generation Bioethanol to Second-Generation Bioethanol: The alternative renewable energy source that has the greatest potential to replace fossil fuels is bioethanol, which is currently being produced from lignocellulosic biomass and starch through the processes of hydrolysis, fermentation, and product purification.

Starch from several food crops is used to produce first-generation bioethanol. Non-edible, non-food crops and waste biomass can be used to make second-generation bioethanol. Factors such as energy balances, greenhouse gas emissions, and minimal production requirements for land, food, fiber, and water will likely allow second-generation biofuels to outperform many first-generation biofuels. The production of bioethanol feedstocks must be done in a way that respects landowner rights, efficient and responsible water usage, and sound agricultural practices.

Second-generation bioethanol may help the economy by developing the nation and assisting the underprivileged, particularly in rural or outlying locations. Lignin is a potentially important source of chemical feedstock for second-generation bioethanol in the biochemical conversion process associated with bio-refineries. It can be used to generate process heat and power in ethanol operations. By using the thermochemical process, lignin is converted into a synthesis gas along with all other polymers.

Governments all around the world must create regulations to reward the sustainability and environmental performance of biofuels for promoting the provision of a more plentiful and geographically diverse feedstock supply. In the medium to long term, it is anticipated that second-generation items will outpace first-generation equivalents.


People are starting to understand how important it is to switch from using fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as the world is evolving rapidly. With the advancements in manufacturing technologies, increasing investments, and government support, liquid biofuels are now cost-competitive with petroleum-based transportation fuels; this has sparked a worldwide increase in research and production of transportation grade bioethanol.

Interested to know more about the growing technologies in your industry vertical? Get the latest market studies and insights from BIS Research. Connect with us at  [email protected] to learn and understand more.


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