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Blue Sky Science: Could the Biofuel Cycle Be Made More Efficient?
(Wisconsin State Journal/Morgridge Institute for Research) Q: Could the biofuel cycle be made more efficient? — Nikita Agrawal, 11, Skinner West Elementary, Chicago
A: The production of biofuels starts by growing plants out in a field or forest. All of the biomass represented in those plants essentially comes through photosynthesis.
In photosynthesis, energy comes from the sunlight, but the matter, the weight of the plant material, comes mostly from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The biofuel process begins by taking carbon from the atmosphere and locking it into the organic plant material.
Next, scientists take steps to turn the solid plant material into a liquid. The material is broken down into sugars, and the sugars are used through fermentation to make different types of fuel, including ethanol.
Fuel, usually composed of about 10 percent ethanol in the United States, is used in cars and undergoes the process of combustion.
Combustion produces carbon dioxide. This puts carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere where it was first taken, back at the beginning of the cycle.
Research at UW-Madison is looking at using fibrous plant material, leaves and stems instead of grains to make biofuel.
While using fibrous plant materials can be a little more complicated, it’s an opportunity to be much more efficient in terms of the energy and fertilizer required to make a biofuel. This can significantly reduce the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere and therefore minimize or even mitigate climate change. READ MORE
The questions are posed by visitors to Science Saturdays at the Discovery Building, a monthly series that features interactive exploration stations centered around a particular topic. The Blue Sky Science team then sets out to find an expert to answer the questions. READ MORE