Biodiesel vs. Ethanol

What's the Difference?

Biodiesel and ethanol are both alternative fuels that can be used as substitutes for traditional fossil fuels. However, they differ in terms of their sources and production processes. Biodiesel is typically derived from vegetable oils or animal fats through a chemical reaction called transesterification. On the other hand, ethanol is primarily produced from crops such as corn, sugarcane, or switchgrass through a process of fermentation and distillation. While both fuels are considered renewable and have lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels, biodiesel has a higher energy content and better lubricating properties, making it more suitable for use in diesel engines. Ethanol, on the other hand, is commonly blended with gasoline to increase octane levels and reduce emissions in gasoline-powered vehicles.


SourceVegetable oils, animal fatsGrains, sugarcane, corn, cellulosic biomass
Production ProcessTransesterificationFermentation and distillation
Energy Content~38.6 MJ/L~26.8 MJ/L
Greenhouse Gas EmissionsReduces CO2 emissions by ~60-90%Reduces CO2 emissions by ~20-40%
Compatibility with Existing EnginesCan be used in diesel engines with minor modificationsCan be used in gasoline engines with minor modifications
AvailabilityRelatively limitedWidely available
Water UsageRequires significant water for crop cultivationRequires moderate water for crop cultivation
By-ProductsGlycerinDried distillers grains

Further Detail


Biodiesel and ethanol are two popular alternative fuels that have gained significant attention in recent years. As the world seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate the environmental impact of transportation, these renewable energy sources have emerged as viable alternatives. While both biodiesel and ethanol offer advantages over traditional petroleum-based fuels, they differ in terms of production methods, feedstocks, energy content, compatibility, and environmental impact.

Production Methods

Biodiesel is primarily produced through a chemical process called transesterification, which involves reacting vegetable oils or animal fats with an alcohol, usually methanol or ethanol. This process breaks down the triglycerides in the feedstock and produces biodiesel as the main product, along with glycerin as a byproduct. On the other hand, ethanol is typically produced through the fermentation of sugars or starches found in crops such as corn, sugarcane, or wheat. Yeast or bacteria are used to convert the sugars into ethanol, which is then distilled to obtain the final product.

While both production methods have their own complexities, biodiesel production requires more chemical processing steps compared to ethanol production. This can result in higher production costs for biodiesel, making ethanol a more cost-effective option in some cases.


Biodiesel can be produced from a wide range of feedstocks, including soybean oil, canola oil, palm oil, and used cooking oil. This versatility allows for greater flexibility in sourcing feedstocks, reducing the impact on food crops. On the other hand, ethanol production is heavily reliant on crops such as corn, sugarcane, and wheat. This dependence on food crops has raised concerns about potential competition for resources between fuel and food production, as well as the impact on food prices.

However, advancements in ethanol production technology have enabled the use of non-food feedstocks such as cellulosic biomass, agricultural residues, and even algae. These alternative feedstocks offer the potential to reduce the reliance on food crops and further enhance the sustainability of ethanol production.

Energy Content

When comparing the energy content of biodiesel and ethanol, it is important to consider their respective energy densities. Biodiesel has a higher energy density compared to ethanol, meaning it contains more energy per unit volume. This higher energy density translates into better fuel efficiency and mileage for vehicles running on biodiesel. Ethanol, on the other hand, has a lower energy density, which can result in reduced fuel efficiency and mileage compared to traditional gasoline.

However, it is worth noting that ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline, which allows for increased engine performance and efficiency when used in high-compression engines. This attribute has made ethanol a popular fuel additive in gasoline blends, such as E10 (10% ethanol) or E85 (85% ethanol).


One of the key considerations when comparing biodiesel and ethanol is their compatibility with existing infrastructure and vehicles. Biodiesel can be used in existing diesel engines with little to no modifications, making it a more straightforward option for transitioning to renewable fuels. It can be blended with petroleum diesel in various ratios, such as B20 (20% biodiesel) or B100 (pure biodiesel).

Ethanol, on the other hand, has some compatibility challenges. It can be blended with gasoline in low concentrations (up to 10% ethanol) without requiring significant modifications to vehicles or fueling infrastructure. However, higher ethanol blends, such as E85, require specialized vehicles and infrastructure due to the different properties and corrosiveness of ethanol. This limits the widespread adoption of higher ethanol blends, although flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on E85 are becoming more common.

Environmental Impact

Both biodiesel and ethanol offer significant environmental benefits compared to traditional fossil fuels. Biodiesel, being derived from renewable feedstocks, has lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum diesel. It also has a lower carbon footprint and contributes to reduced air pollution, as it burns cleaner and produces fewer particulate matter emissions.

Ethanol, similarly, has lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. The carbon dioxide released during ethanol combustion is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the crops during their growth, resulting in a closed carbon cycle. Additionally, ethanol has lower emissions of harmful pollutants such as sulfur and benzene, contributing to improved air quality.

However, it is important to consider the overall sustainability of feedstock production for both biodiesel and ethanol. The cultivation of certain feedstocks, especially when done unsustainably, can lead to deforestation, habitat destruction, and increased use of fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the production of these alternative fuels aligns with sustainable practices to maximize their environmental benefits.


Biodiesel and ethanol are both promising alternative fuels that offer advantages over traditional petroleum-based fuels. While biodiesel has a higher energy density, greater compatibility with existing infrastructure, and a wider range of feedstock options, ethanol has a higher octane rating, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential for non-food feedstocks. The choice between biodiesel and ethanol ultimately depends on various factors, including the specific application, availability of feedstocks, infrastructure compatibility, and environmental considerations. As the world continues to seek sustainable energy solutions, both biodiesel and ethanol will play important roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating the environmental impact of transportation.

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