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The Benefits and Production of Renewable Fuels

For decades, people have been looking for and researching alternatives to fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are produced from finite resources and the burning of these fuels is having a negative impact on the natural environment.  Companies, cities, and customers are realizing the impact on the climate of fuel made from crude oil and are demanding a more sustainable alternative.

A lot of the focus for alternative fuel sources has been put on renewable fuels made from renewable raw materials.  The main raw materials used in the production of renewable fuels include used cooking oil, waste animal fats, vegetable oils, and bioethanol made from corn or sugarcane.  The goal behind the research and production of renewable fuels is to find a reliable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly fuel source that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels made from non-renewable resources.

In this guide, we will discuss renewable fuels, their potential benefits, and how they are produced.  Renewable fuels have the potential to be the alternative to fossil fuels that could greatly benefit our natural environment. At Mahoney Environmental, we are proud to contribute to the push towards renewable fuels with our used cooking oil recycling services in which we process used cooking oil so it can be used in the production of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel.

What are Renewable Fuels?

Simply put, renewable fuels are fuels made from renewable resources.  Renewable fuels are commonly produced from used cooking oil, waste animal fat, vegetable oils, bioethanol from corn or sugarcane, and even hydrogen gas.  The major difference between renewable fuels and fossil fuels is that renewable fuels are made from using existing atmospheric carbon molecules, not introducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It’s a virtuous, circular cycle. The production of renewable fuel can have great economic and environmental benefits.  The availability of renewable fuels can diversify fuel options for many uses and help reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

History of Renewable Fuels

The first renewable fuel used by humans was wood for making fires.  Wood burning fires were used by humans for more than 1.5 million years until electricity became widely used.  The use of non-renewable fuel sources started during the Industrial Revolution with coal-powered steam engines. When automobiles first appeared, they were designed to be powered by non-renewable fuels. Non-renewable petroleum-based fuels became the main fuel source for automobiles because they cost less than renewable fuels.

Non-renewable petroleum-based fuels became the main fuel source for automobiles because it cost less to produce than renewable biofuels; however, the real costs on the climate and our environment were not taken into consideration back then.

The interest in finding an alternative renewable fuel source increased in the 1970s when a gas shortage affected much of the Western world, including the U.S.  The increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the noticeable impact they have on our natural environment has also motivated the search for a more environmentally friendly fuel alternative.  To encourage an increase in the domestic production of renewable fuels, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) was passed in 2007.  The EISA requires a minimum volume of renewable fuels in all transportation fuels sold in the U.S.

The Importance of Renewable Fuels

As mentioned above, raw materials used for fossil fuel production are non-renewable.  The impact fossil fuel production and use has on the natural environment is also motivating the research of renewable fuel alternatives.  The fossil fuel production process releases methane which is a greenhouse gas, and the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide emissions.

The production and use of renewable fuels is important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels.  Renewable fuels can make the biggest impact in the transportation industry as vehicle emissions are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gasses. Fuels made from renewable sources like used cooking oil are already making an impact in the transportation industry as renewable diesel is being used in buses and airlines are starting to use sustainable aviation fuel.

Benefits and Challenges of Renewable Fuels

The main benefits of renewable fuels have already been touched on in the previous sections.  The production and use of renewable fuels can help reduce greenhouse gasses and carbon emissions which helps to protect the natural environment.  Renewable fuel production can also help reduce the amount of waste going into landfills as municipal waste and some feedstocks can be used to produce renewable fuels.  The domestic production of renewable fuels will also increase the energy security of the U.S. by reducing our dependence on foreign oils and creating more jobs.

Currently in the US, renewable fuels are mostly used on the West Coast, such as California and Oregon. They have clean fuel programs. With more states are considering to adopt similar programs, the availability and accessibility of renewable fuel is expected to continue to grow.  The costs of renewable fuel production, utilization, and storage are also expected to decrease the more renewable fuel research advances.

Production of Renewable Fuels

Renewable fuels can be produced from biomass sources including lipids such as animal fats, vegetable oils, used cooking oil, and grease as well as cellulosic materials such as crop residues, woody materials, and energy crops.  The following are the main methods of production of renewable fuels:

  • Traditional hydrotreating: Hydrotreating is when the feedstock (lipids) is reacted with hydrogen under elevated temperatures and pressures in the presence of a catalyst.  This method is typically done at petroleum refineries.
  • Biological sugar upgrading: This process involves biochemical deconstruction with additional organisms that convert sugars to hydrocarbons.
  • Catalytic conversion of sugars: With this method, carbohydrate streams are converted to hydrocarbon fuels through a series of catalytic reactions.
  • Gasification: This process thermally converts biomass to syngas which is then catalytically converted to hydrocarbon fuels.
  • Pyrolysis: With this process, chemical decomposition of organic materials is done at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen.  A liquid pyrolysis oil is produced that can be upgraded to hydrocarbon fuels through a standalone process or as a feedstock for co-feeding crude oil into a standard petroleum refinery.
  • Hydrothermal processing: With this process, the chemical decomposition or biomass or wet waste materials is initiated using high pressure and moderate temperature which produces an oil that can be upgraded catalytically to hydrocarbon fuels.

Used Cooking Oil Recycling from Mahoney Environmental

Mahoney Used Cooking Recycling

Renewable fuels have the potential to lower carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels, and improve the energy security of the U.S.  However, further research and development are needed to reduce the cost of renewable fuel production to make it more economically feasible to replace the production and use of fossil fuels.

Used cooking oil from foodservice businesses is one of the main lipids used in the production of renewable fuels. At Mahoney Environmental, we do our part to promote the production of renewable fuels and protect our natural environment by collecting and recycling used cooking oil so it can be used in renewable fuel.

With our used cooking oil pickup and recycling services, foodservice businesses can expect regular pickups from our professionals to transport your used cooking oil to our recycling facility.  

You can call Mahoney Environmental at (800) 892-9392 for more information about our used cooking oil pickup and recycling. We are proud to serve food establishments across the country, including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, Washington DC and the surrounding areas.

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