Share this article:


  • Join our comunity:

Biofuels: Past, Present, and Future

By: , Posted on: May 8, 2020

With crude oil prices at their lowest point in more than 20 years and a global pandemic essentially halting travel and reducing oil consumption, it may not seem like the best time to think about alternative feedstocks for fuels. But history has shown that demand will increase, and prices will rise, prompting calls for renewable alternatives again. Research and development to make fuels from biomass –wood, grass, corn stalks, algae, trash – has been going on since the 1973 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo and its consequences.

What is Biomass?

The simplest definition is “organic matter that can be converted into energy” (

The role of biomass is evolving from simply diversifying our energy resources to using renewables with a smaller environmental footprint. The short-term environmental concerns about trace pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and unburned hydrocarbons are now overshadowed by the long-term threat of global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomass will be available perpetually if managed properly to recycle carbon in the biosphere.

Sustainability dictates that as biomass is used, it must be replaced to maintain global carbon balance. Carbon accumulation in the atmosphere can be slowed or reversed if biomass resources are efficiently and economically converted into products that displace fossil fuels.

Biomass Conversion to Biofuels

There is enough sustainable biomass to offset fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Technology development has focused on efficiently and economically converting it into biofuels.

First-generation technologies convert sugars or triglycerides.

  • Sugars from molasses or hydrolyzed corn starch are fermented to produce ethanol.
  • Vegetable oils are transesterified to produce biodiesel.

Second-generation and advanced technologies are being developed to biochemically or thermochemically convert non-food biomass into cellulosic ethanol, gasoline, and diesel. Technical advancements made in the agro-processing and petrochemical industries can often be adapted, and existing infrastructure can be leveraged to manage costs. There is a natural tendency to draw parallels between biomass and fossil fuels because of the common end-use markets, but biomass has unique challenges that have been the focus of research and development for fifty years.

The question is not whether biofuels can be made from biomass but whether it can be done at a price competitive with petroleum. Much progress has been made.

  • First-generation biofuels now make up more than 10% of transportation fuel in the United States.
  • Second-generation technologies are being pre-commercially demonstrated.
  • Commercial deployment can continue under the right economic and policy conditions.

Our new book Analytical Methods for Biomass Characterization and Conversion covers the technology needs and the regulatory and policy challenges associated with commercial end-use applications of biomass and biofuels.

The future of advanced biofuels demands several complex, interrelated considerations.

  • Research and development must continue to improve process efficiencies and reduce costs.
  • The entire value chain must be considered for innovative technical solutions.
  • Technologies must be both economically viable and environmentally sustainable, even for unconventional or niche scenarios.
  • Policies should be mindful of protecting food security and land use for sustainability as advanced technologies mature.
  • Concerns about energy security, environmental quality, and global climate change will drive the transition to carbon neutral or negative energy resources, with biofuels leading the way.


About the book:

  • Covers the broad range of techniques and applications that have been developed and perfected in the last decade
  • Highlights specific analyses required for understanding biomass conversion to select intermediates
  • Provides references to seminal books, review articles and technical articles that go into greater depth, serving as a basis for further study


The book is available now on ScienceDirect. Want your own copy? Enter code STC320 when you order via the Elsevier store to save up to 30%


About the Author

Dr. David C. Dayton ( is a Senior Fellow of Chemistry and the Director of the Biofuels Program in RTI International’s Technology Advancement and Commercialization Division ( He has over 25 years of project management and research experience in biomass thermochemical conversion involving combustion, gasification, and pyrolysis. His current focus is catalytic pyrolysis technology, which is being scaled up from bench-top to a 1 TPD integrated system ( to optimize production of gasoline and diesel.

Connect with us on social media and stay up to date on new articles


A field as broad as chemistry is cross-disciplinary by nature. Chemistry researchers, in their work or study, may encounter issues in materials science, biochemistry, chemical engineering, or a wide range of other disciplines. In addition to the major areas of organic and inorganic chemistry, Elsevier content covers advanced topics such as quantum chemistry, analytical chemistry, physical and theoretical chemistry, energy generation and storage, nano-chemistry, surface and interface chemistry, and environmental chemistry. This content is available over a spectrum of formats that includes journals, books, eBooks, undergraduate textbooks, multi-volume reference works, and innovative databases and online products like Reaxys. Learn more about our Chemistry books here.