What is a biofuel?

A biofuel is any fuel that is derived from a living or recently living organism, as opposed to fossil fuels, which are produced from the organic remains of long dead organisms. Biofuels can be used to power vehicles, heat or cool homes, and many other uses. There is increasing interest in biofuels because they are a more renewable resource than fossil fuels, and better for the environment.

Biofuels can be produced from many plants, including maize. There are a number of different strategies for biofuel production. Plants high in sugar or starch can be fermented to produce ethanol (ethyl alcohol) that can be used directly as fuel. Plants most often used for this are maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), sugarcane (various Saccharum species), sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), and sugarbeet (Beta vulgaris). Brazil in particular has become well known for its successful use of ethanol made from sugarcane as fuel. Currently Brazil and the U.S. combined produce the majority of ethanol in the world.

Another method of generating biofuels is to produce cellulosic ethanol from the non-edible parts of plants such as the stalk. Cellulose is a component of lignin, the structural material in plants.  Although producing cellulosic ethanol has the advantage of using parts of the plant not usually used for food (and therefore is often wasted), it requires a greater amount of processing. In addition to maize stover (leaves and stalks), some plant materials used to generate cellulosic ethanol include switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), miscanthus (various species of Miscanthus), and wood chips.

Both methods of biofuel production require transporting the materials to a processing plant, thus adding to the cost (and fuel) required to generate the biofuel. Currently there are relatively few biofuel processing centers in the U.S., so this is a hindrance to the replacement of fossil fuels with biofuels.