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As demand for low-carbon impact, domestically sourced fuels has increased, biofuels have become a fast-growing part of the energy sector. Biofuels are produced from renewable resources, such as grains, plant biomass, vegetable oils, and treated municipal and industrial wastes. They are flammable or combustible, and their manufacture can involve potentially dangerous chemical reactions. Employers must protect workers from the hazards of these fuels and their production processes.
Types of Biofuels
There are currently two major types of biofuels being produced in the U.S.
Ethanol is a flammable liquid that is readily ignited at ordinary temperatures. Renewable ethanol is produced by the fermentation of grains, or, using advanced technologies, from cellulosic materials such as waste paper, wood chips, and agricultural wastes. The production process can involve other hazardous materials, such as acids, bases, and gasoline (to denature the alcohol, or for blending). Up to 10% ethanol is blended with gasoline in most automotive fuel currently sold in the U.S. Higher ethanol blends, up to "E85" (85% ethanol blended with gasoline) are also available in some parts of the country.
Biodiesel is a combustible liquid which burns readiy when heated. However, blending with petroleum based diesel fuel or contamination by materials used in manufacturing can increase its flammability. Biodiesel is produced by reacting organic materials such as vegetable oils with an alcohol, typically methanol, using a strong base, such as a caustic, as a catalyst. Glycerin, a combustible liquid, is produced as a by-product. The caustic is neutralized with acid, typically sulfuric acid. All of these materials may require careful management to protect workers. Biodiesel blended with petroleum-based diesel is widely available.
Hazards and Controls
Potential hazards in biofuels production and handling include:
These hazards are in addition to normal workplace hazards, such as walking/working surface hazards, electrical hazards and other similar hazards. There have been biofuel- related accidents involving fatalities and injuries from burns, explosions, and chemical exposures.
The following resources provide additional information on the production and handling of biofuels: