Biofuels

The logic of bio

Liquid biofuels is a generic name for refined liquids derived from plants, plant waste and, in some cases, animal waste products. Biofuels are used either as a pure product or, more commonly, as a blend with conventional fossil fuel liquids. To date they are mostly used as transportation fuels and are readily available at the pump throughout Europe (often blended with common transportation fuels such as diesel and gasoline). Besides usage as transportation fuel, liquid biofuels can potentially also be used for cooking, heating and electricity generation, especially in remote areas, where the costs of fossil alternatives are high and when the organic material to produce the biofuel is available regionally.

Related benefits for rural areas include low carbon emissions, they are a renewable energy source and may lead to a reduced dependence on imported fossil fuels. The sourcing and production of biofuels may also provide new economic and employment opportunities in rural areas, particularly in the agricultural and forestry sectors.

There are certain limits to the production and supply of biofuels – both in terms of sustainability and of available land –that will become increasingly apparent as Europe strives to increase the share renewable energy. These issues are addressed in stricter sustainability criteria that are currently being defined by the European Commission. Biofuels in quantities to meaningfully impact the transportation sector are not likely to be sufficiently available locally in most rural areas.

Costs for producing biofuels vary significantly depending on feedstock costs (linked to agro commodities for first generation fuels), conversion technologies, and scale. In most cases, costs of producing biofuels are currently higher than its conventional fossil alternatives. This is mainly due to their relatively immature supply chains and lack of economies of scale, compared to the well-established and well-integrated network that makes fossil fuels. Therefore most biofuel markets in Europe are driven by policies (through subsidies and mandates).

General Info

What is it?

Liquid biofuels are liquid energy carriers that are mostly used as transportation fuel, in either pure form or, most commonly, blended with diesel, gasoline and in some cases jet fuel. The two main types of liquid biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel:

  • Bioethanol is alcohol (ethanol) produced by fermenting sugars or starch.
  • Biodiesel is obtained from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Besides usage as transportation fuel, liquid biofuels can potentially also be used for cooking, heating and electricity generation, especially in remote areas, where the costs of fossil alternatives are high and especially if the organic material to produce the biofuel is available regionally.

Biofuels are produced from a wide variety of organic material including plants, plant waste and, in some cases, animal waste products. All have very different physical and combustion properties. The conversion technologies along the supply chain are just as diverse and numerous. Figure 1 below gives a quick overview of the most prominent current and future production routes.

Today, the vast majority of biofuels available on the market are produced from the edible parts of plants such as starch and grain (for bioethanol) and oils (for biodiesel). These biofuels are referred to as first-generation biofuels. Second- generation biofuels, also called advanced biofuels, are being developed and the first commercial scale production facilities are being built today. These advanced fuel are produced from the woody parts of plants (lignocellulosic biomass) like straw, wood (poplar, eucalyptus, forest residues etc.), and perennial grasses (like switch grass). In general, second generation biofuels have better carbon footprints and do not compete directly with food markets.

What are the benefits?

Flexible: Both bioethanol and biodiesel can be used to substitute gasoline and diesel respectively. These biofuels can be used as a fuel for vehicles in their pure form, but they are usually blended in with fossil fuels in various concentrations, typically 5%, 10%, 20% or 85% by volume. The resulting fuels at the pump are often named after the blend, like B10 (10% biodiesel, 90% diesel), E90 (90% ethanol, 10% gasoline) etc.

Low carbon emissions and renewable: The emissions associated with biofuels are lower than fossil fuels. Biofuels can potentially be carbon-neutral as the amount of carbon that is emitted during combustion of the biofuels is equal to the amount of carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere during plant growth. However, some emissions also occur during the production, conversion and distribution of the biofuels. Overall, the total estimated GHG emission savings from the use of biofuels in the EU in 2010 (excluding indirect effects, discussed below), ranged between 53% and 60 %compared to the situation where comparable fossil fuel would be used1. Biofuels are also renewable. More information on emissions in the section environmental impacts below.

Reduced dependence on imported oil: An increased consumption of biofuels allows the countries and regions to reduce their dependence on imported foreign oil. Dependence on oil, whose price can be volatile, and which is largely sourced from geopolitically sensitive areas, represents an economic risk for the EU and its local economies.

Economic opportunities for rural Europe: In the second part of the 20th century, European countries decided to invest in food self-sufficiency. This lead to heavy investments and subsidies in the agricultural sector, which subsequently lead to overproduction and low prices of agricultural products. The first government- sponsored biofuels developments were part of efforts to find new applications for these agricultural commodities, by providing new applications for the high production while at the same time addressing problems (1) and (2). Today, the production of biofuels provides new economic activity and employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas in Europe.

How does it work?

Bioethanol

Bio-ethanol is currently the most widely used biofuel around the world.

The production of bioethanol is based on the same natural fermentation process that produces wine and beer. After fermentation, the ethanol needs to be distilled, to remove all remaining impurities water, to produce anhydrous ethanol.

Current commercial bio-ethanol production is based on fermenting sugar or starch. In Europe, wheat and sugar beet are the primary feedstock; maize is more popular in the USA. In tropical countries, bioethanol is largely based on sugar cane, while sweet sorghum and cassava are increasingly popular feedstock in other countries.

Other biofuels can be used in the same manner as bioethanol, but represent very small market share. They include methanol and ETBE.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is obtained from vegetable oils and animal fats that are chemically treated with an alcohol (mostly methanol) through a process called trans- esterification.

The most common feedstock used in the EU is currently rapeseed oil, palm oil, soybean/oil, used cooking oil and animal fat. The EU is the major producer of biodiesel globally and uses all these feedstock. Initially, rapeseed accounted for the lion’s share of biodiesel feedstock because rapeseed biodiesel best matches some physical parameters of fossil diesel and the biodiesel specifications strongly steered towards the use of rapeseed. Throughout the years, the use of other feedstock has increased, because (1) the biodiesel quality standard has become less strict and somewhat less important since the quality of the resulting blend with diesel is leading, (2) other feedstock are sometimes cheaper and (3) biodiesel produced from other feedstock is sometimes more valuable (when it is made from residues.

Other techniques to produce biodiesel also exist, but are commercially not significant yet. They include hydrothermal processing, hydro processing, pyrolysis and synthesis from syngas through Fischer-Tropsch catalytic process and the alternative fuels DME and straight vegetable oil (SVO).

Suitability/ applicability

The use of liquid biofuels in transportation is commercially widespread throughout Europe, with the fuels being available mostly in blended form at the pump.

Modern liquid biofuels, but mostly pure vegetable oil could potentially be used in rural areas as an alternative to fuel oil for heating, or as an alternative for diesel in backup electric generators, although this is currently not economically viable in most cases.

Detailed Info

Costs, Savings, Earnings

Costs for producing biofuels vary significantly depending on feedstock costs (linked to agro commodities for first generation fuels), conversion technologies, and scale. In most cases, costs of producing biofuels are currently higher than its conventional fossil alternatives. This is mainly due to their relatively immature supply chains and lack of economies of scale, compared to the well-established and well-integrated network that makes fossil fuels. Therefore most biofuel markets in Europe are driven by policies (subsidies and mandates, with mandates being the dominant form).

With time however, it is widely expected that biofuels can become a cost- competitive alternative to conventional transportation fuels, as production costs go down (with scaling and learning), especially if the price of fossil alternatives will continue to rise2. European regulation3 obliges each Member State to increase the share of renewable energy in the transport sector to a minimum of 10% by 2020. The largest share is expected to come from liquid biofuels, and a minor share from electricity and biogas. This will create a market for biofuels and is aimed at a further reduction of prices.

For the end-user, an important aspect of biofuels to bear in mind is that the energy content of biofuels is often lower than the same volume of its fossil equivalent4. Therefore it takes a little bit of calculation to determine the cost- attractiveness of a biofuel (blend) on an energy basis.

Environmental Impacts

Although the technical potential for biofuels is very large worldwide5, large-scale bio energy production has raised concerns about sustainability. The main concerns relate to greenhouse gas emissions, carbon and biodiversity loss from land use changes, social issues, competition with food and indirect effects.

Effects on land use

Bio energy feedstock demand and the associated land requirements can have direct and indirect effects. One of the main direct effects is direct land-use change (LUC). A direct LUC occurs when new areas that were previously uncultivated (e.g. forest areas) are taken into production to produce the additional feedstock. This can have both positive and negative consequences on biodiversity, carbon stocks and livelihoods. Direct LUC effects and other direct effects of crop production can generally be measured and attributed to the party that caused them. These properties make direct LUC relatively easy to control. The EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and voluntary

certification schemes6 already include criteria for the prevention of unwanted direct LUC for biofuel feedstock production.

Indirect effects (ILUC)

The topic that is currently dominating the debate on the sustainability of biofuels is indirect land-use change (ILUC). ILUC can occur when existing food-producing lands such as plantations and grazing land are changing their use to supply the feedstock for additional biofuels. This displaces the previous productive function of the land (e.g. food production), which can cause an expansion of the land use for biomass production to new areas (e.g. to forest land or to grassland areas. It should be noted that such indirect effects are not directly caused by unsustainable practices of biofuel (feedstock) producers but by unsustainable practices by parties producing for other sectors (e.g. food, feed or fibre). This mechanism is very difficult to quantify and is the subject of intense scientific debate. However, some methods exist to avoid these indirect impacts, by linking the biofuels production to yield increases, using abandoned land or using residues, all of which avoid the displacement of existing markets7.

Emissions

Although the use of biofuels could potentially be carbon neutral (see benefits above), some greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occur during the production, conversion and distribution of the biofuels, which have to be allocated to the biofuels in order to evaluate its benefits over the entire life-cycle (including the entire supply chain). The results of such an analysis vary widely between biofuels, depending on how and where the biomass is grown (fertiliser use is a big emitter of emissions), what conversion technologies are used (e.g. what fuel was used for providing the heat for distillation), and how the supply chain is set up (transport emissions etc.). In general, biofuels made from residues (that have no other economic use) have better GHG performance since they are not responsible for emissions in the biomass production stage.

Food vs. Fuel

Many concerns have been raised over the impact of biofuels on food prices and food security. This is a very complex question. Although biofuels can play a role in food insecurity, they are generally very small and have to be seen as part of a much wider socio-economic context, where systemic factors like reduced reserves, food waste, speculation, transportation issues, storage costs and problems, and hoarding play a much larger role in local food prices8. Biofuels can also play a positive role in reducing food insecurity by helping to reduce food price volatility, reducing oil price increase and bringing much needed investments to the agricultural sector in developing countries.

Efficiency

As liquid biofuels are a fuel, its efficiency depends on the efficiency of the technology that converts the fuel into end-uses such as heating or power.

Commercial Maturity

Conventional biofuels are made through commercially mature technologies. First-generation biofuels are already widely available on the market and in some countries they are cost-competitive with conventional transportation fuels (e.g. Brazil). So-called second- generation technologies are still undergoing major technological developments, and are expected to gain market share in the coming decade9.

Level of Maintenance

Not applicable.

Technical Details

Schematics

Figure 1: most prominent current and future biofuel production routes

Regional variations

Some properties of biodiesel make it less suitable for very cold regions than fossil equivalents, for example B100 freezes faster than common diesel. This does not prevent biofuels to be used in cold climates, but can favour certain fuels over others. For example, biodiesel from canola and sunflower have better cold flow properties than diesel from soybeans, animal fats or palm oil.

Trade associations

European Biomass Association www.aebiom.org

European Biodiesel Board www.ebb-eu.org

ePURE, European Renewable Ethanol Association www.epure.org

Sustainable Biofuels Forum www.sustainablebiofuelsforum.eu