The possibility of using fuels derived from crops and other biological sources - so called "BioFuels" for transport applications is very much in the news at the moment. This three part post aims to have a look at some of the positive and negative aspects of Biofuel production, with a final part asking some questions and trying to put the information gained to some useful use.
This post was initially provoked by a fascinating public lecture at Nottingham University earlier this year. Part of a series of lectures from the Midlands branch of the British Science Association, this particular event was titled "Biofuels - what are they and where are they taking us?" and presented by Dr Roger Ibbett who is a researcher in this area.
Dr Ibbett classified the various Biofuel technologies as being First, Second or Third generation.
First Generation Biofuels are derived from plant materials such as sugar beet, sugar cane, corn starch and wheat starch - i.e. plants that would otherwise be used as food. First generation Biofuel plants are already up and running in the UK, with British Sugar producing 70million litres of ethanol per year from 650,000 tones of sugar beet. A by-product of the process, CO2, is supplied to local greenhouses. One aspect of biofuel production that needs to be borne in mind is that the process of biofuel manufacture itself required energy, and if the amount of energy is too high then the whole process becomes self-defeating. Other biofuel plants in the UK include a Vivergo grain ethanol plant in Hull (420 million litres of bioethanol p.a), an Ensus bioethanol plant in Teeside (400 million litres of bioethanol p.a. - plant not yet operational). Biodiesel plants can also be found at Immingham (300 million litres of biodiesel p.a) and Teeside (375 million litres of biodiesel p.a). A significant fraction of the feedstock for these bio-diesel plants is waste cooking oil. Currently, the UK's transport fuels in the UK are 3.3% renewable.
Second Generation Biofuels are derived from non-food agricultural crops, such as wheat straw, corn stover or willow coppice. It is much harder to convert these to fuels than with the sugary/starchy drops used for First Gen Biofuels. There are currently no second generation biofuel plants in operation in the UK.
Third generation Biofuels are very much at the initial research stage and include technologies such as fuel from algae.
The talk went on to describe how US projections suggested that by 2050 biofuels could, if all planned technologies come on stream, comprise perhaps 10% of the liquid fuels market - and this is a market that will have grown by some 50% in the meantime. So biofuels are clearly not the complete answer, but are part of the solution - in combination with more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrid/electric drivetrains etc.
BFTF certainly found the talk to be food for thought, and did a little research on the Intranet later. This revealed that Brazil and USA accounted for some 88% of world biofuel production in 2010 with the Brazilian bioethanol being produced using state-of-the-art processs with sugar cane as the feedstock. The cane stalks, leaves etc were burnt separately to produce heating. All Brazilian vehicles now run on fuel that contains a minimum of 20% bioethanol (some vehicles run on 100% bioethanol).
A well timed article in the 21May2011 issue of the New Scientist, described for 3rd generation biofuels are attracting serious investment. Exxon-Mobil has committed some $600million to developing algal biofuels with gene sequencing pioneer Craig Ventner while a number of other companies such as Joule Unlimited and LS9 are at the pilot plant stage, with plans for large plants being drawn up for the future.
Taking a somewhat different approach to biofuel generation, Action Aid report that the 30million tonnes of agricultural manure and food waste each year is capable of generating sufficient methane to meet 16% of transport fuel demand, and that so-called "Biogas" fuelled vehicles are becoming widely used in a number of countries, with Germany having installed some 800 gas filling stations by 2008.
On any topic, one source of information that is often overlooked is the government. In the case of biofuels there is something of a "mother lode" of relevant information and consultation at the "gov.uk" website (see link below).
Government Policy and Research on Biofuels
Wikipedia article on BioFuels in Brazil
LACE (lignocellulosic conversion to ethanol) Project
Sustainable Bioenergy Research Centre
Guardian Article on the deforestation caused by biofuels
IEA Biofuels reports
Action Aid list of recent reports
Policy Statement from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport
Dr Ibbett can be contacted at: email@example.com