Issue: Jul 2011

The future of biofuels

by Tony Davidson

The European parliament resolution dated the 4th February 2009, “2050: The future begins today – Recommendations for the EU’s future integrated policy on climate change”, set out detailed targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and by 80% by 2080. The report includes biofuels as one of the key technologies for research and development to help to achieve this aim.

The European commission report, “Towards a European strategic energy technology plan”, stated that EU greenhouse gas emissions are on course to increase by 5% by 2030. It also predicted that dependency on imported fuels would grow from the current level of 50% to 65% by 2030.

In a further report, “An energy policy for Europe”, the European commission proposed a binding target of increasing the level of renewable energy into Europe’s overall mix to 20% by 2020; and a binding target for biofuels of 10% of vehicle fuels by 2020.

Key issues
Such ambitious targets require the facilitation of mass production of cost efficient biofuels, and there are various wider social and economic aspects to consider as part of this process. 

Several biofuels have had their emissions reduction potential revised in comparison to conventional fuels after a full analysis of the life-cycle of the biofuel. The problems of sustainability and the environmental impact of mass production of biofuels are still to be fully assessed and resolved.

There needs to be a global outlook on the policies surrounding production of biofuels. There is a growing food v fuel row due to lack of available land for food production and crops grown for renewable energy. While producing biomass creates an opportunity for developing countries, it must not be allowed to lead to competition over land for food.

The manufacture of first generation biofuels will need to be made sustainable on a large scale, while at the same time there must be a rapid development of second generation biofuels. The industry will also need to work with the motor industry and the petroleum industry to achieve the development of an overall sustainable transport system.

First generation
First generation biofuels are generally produced from oil crops such as rape and palm oil, cereal crops like wheat and maize, or sugar crops such as sugar beet and sugar cane. There are several problems surrounding the manufacture of first generation fuels, including environmental impact, land availability, and the indirect effects of production. One of the overriding problems is the yield produced by certain crops, and the sheer weight of biomass that would need to be produced to satisfy fuel demand. First generation biofuels include:

Pure vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel by transesterification with methanol, and the resulting product is used in low-biofuel blends with fossil diesel. The typical blend is 5% in line with the European diesel standard, although pure biodiesel is used in Germany and Austria with modified vehicles and engines. The most commonly used biodiesel in Europe is Rapeseed Methyl Ester (RME).

Bio ethanol & ETBE
First generation bio ethanol is the most used biofuel globally. It is produced by distillation of wheat, sugar cane, corn, sugar beet and waste from sugar refineries. Bio ethanol is best used

with a spark-ignition or Otto engine; it has a high octane rating, which suggests good anti-knock characteristics. Blends of 5% with fossil petrol are allowed in Europe, although in Sweden flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are using E85, an 85% bio ethanol and 15% petrol mix. Higher proportion blends of bio ethanol can have a corrosive effect on certain metal and plastic engine components so its derivative, ETBE is more commonly found across Europe in blends up to 15%. ETBE is created via a catalytic reaction of ethanol and isobutylene; it improves the combustion of petrol and avoids the problems associated with corrosion. British Sugar’s factory in Wissington (pictured below) is the UK’s first bio ethanol plant. It produces 75 million litres of bio ethanol per year, which is approximately equivalent to 2% of the petrol used by cars each year in the UK 

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