Some long-exploited biofuels, such as wood, can be used directly as a raw material that is burned to produce heat. The heat, in turn, can be used to run generators in a power plant to produce electricity. A number of existing power facilities burn grass, wood, or other kinds of biomass.
Liquid biofuels are of particular interest because of the vast infrastructure already in place to use them, especially for transportation. The liquid biofuel in greatest production is ethanol (ethyl alcohol), which is made by fermenting starch or sugar. Brazil and the United States are among the leading producers of ethanol. In the United States ethanol biofuel is made primarily from corn (maize) grain, and it is typically blended with gasoline to produce “gasohol,” a fuel that is 10 percent ethanol. In Brazil, ethanol biofuel is made primarily from sugarcane, and it is commonly used as a 100-percent-ethanol fuel or in gasoline blends containing 85 percent ethanol. Unlike the “first-generation” ethanol biofuel produced from food crops, “second-generation” cellulosic ethanol is derived from low-value biomass that possesses a high cellulose content, including wood chips, crop residues, and municipal waste. Cellulosic ethanol is commonly made from sugarcane bagasse, a waste product from sugar processing, or from various grasses that can be cultivated on low-quality land. Given that the conversion rate is lower than with first-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol is dominantly used as a gasoline additive.
The second most common liquid biofuel is biodiesel, which is made primarily from oily plants (such as the soybean or oil palm) and to a lesser extent from other oily sources (such as waste cooking fat from restaurant deep-frying). Biodiesel, which has found greatest acceptance in Europe, is used in diesel engines and usually blended with petroleum diesel fuel in various percentages. The use of algae and cyanobacteria as a source of “third-generation” biodiesel holds promise but has been difficult to develop economically. Some algal species contain up to 40 percent lipids by weight, which can be converted into biodiesel or synthetic petroleum. Some estimates state that algae and cyanobacteria could yield between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area than second-generation biofuels.