Biofuel for transport

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Biofuel for transport is a further opportunity sector for biomass. Revisions to the EU Common Agricultural Policy which came into effect in 2005 pose a challenge to farmers as world cereal prices fall. Energy crops are an obvious substitute. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently investigating barriers to energy crop production. Already the EU is the largest producer of biodiesel in the world at 500,000 tonnes with the potential for twice that capacity. Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and Austria are the main producers.

For many decades Brazil has been the world leader in the use of bioethanol derived from sugar. Half its new cars are tuned to run on 100% ethanol. Sweden is setting the pace in Europe. Saab has introduced a model which runs on 85% ethanol and two thirds of advance orders are for this model. Volvo is following the Saab example. If this is deemed to be innovative technology it must be remembered that Henry Ford recommended ethanol in favour of gasoline, fearing the southern states might deprive the north of oil.

Rapeseed yields ~3.2t/ha with 37% recoverable oil with 95% conversion to diesel giving 0.4 million tonnes of oil per year or 0.5% of UK oil demand. Conversion to diesel needs the addition of methanol from biological sources.

In June 2005 The Worldwatch Institute of Washington teamed up with the German Ministry for Consumer Protection and Agriculture to investigate the global potential for the large-scale use of biofuels for transportation. This has been prompted by growing concerns over the security of supply of oil combined with the relentless rise in its price. Over the previous three years the market for biofuels grew by 70% suggesting that this was the time to 'assess strategies for maximizing the economic, social and environmental benefits of biofuels development'.7 The project is being funded by the German government.

Due to be completed in July 2006, the project will seek to quantify the potential for biofuels to displace petroleum fuels and will assess the policy instruments in place to stimulate their production. Included in the project will be an assessment of 'the broader impacts of large-scale development of biofuels, focusing on the implications for the size of farms, the health of rural communities, the energy and chemical requirements of agriculture, impacts on rural landscapes and biodiversity, air and water quality, climate change and international trade balances'.8

The purpose of the project is to collaborate with the German government to devise 'cutting-edge policies for the development of a vibrant biofuels industry'.

Introducing a debate on Renewable Energy in the House of Lords on 23 June 2005, Lord Oxburgh described how a small enzyme company, Iogen, had developed an enzyme that can break down straw into its constituent sugars to produce cellulose ethanol. In collaboration with Shell (of which Lord Oxburgh was Chairman to June 2005) it is making an ethanol fuel from what had previously been a waste product. The process involves fermentation and distillation to produce Ecoethanol, so named to distinguish it from ethanol derived from corn and wheat. In the latter case only a small fraction of the plant is used for fuel and the rest wasted. It is expected that, when it is in full production, it will be significantly cheaper than fuel oil. For a brief period in May 2005 even corn ethanol was cheaper in the US than gasoline. The advantages of cellulose ethanol are:

• its processing does not involve fossil fuels; instead it uses plant by-products to create the energy to run the process

• the effect is a net zero greenhouse gas product

• the raw material, being a waste product, does not compete as a human food source and exploits existing farm practices

• the agricultural industry produces large quantities of residue which is mostly burned or left to enrich the soil; however, the practice of burning is becoming increasingly unpopular and, in some countries, illegal. There is huge scope for converting this residue into cellulose ethanol

• until recently, expensive and inefficient bioprocesses made cellulose ethanol uneconomic, but developments in biotechnology and process technology have made large-scale cellulose ethanol production a reality which promises to revolutionize the transport industry.

A UK Biomass Task Force reported in June 2005 on the outlook for biofuels and concluded that 500,000 ha could be devoted to growing oil seed crops with a similar area dedicated to wheat and root crops for bioethanol. In 2002 the Institute of Biology (IoB) concluded that this area planted with Miscanthus could produce 3 million tonnes of oil equivalent of biofuel, representing 4% of annual oil demand. In total the IoB reckons that biofuels could offset UK primary energy demand by 7%, the equivalent of 16 million tonnes of domestic oil consumption.

The government has stated its intention to introduce a Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation by April 2008, which will require diesel and petrol to be blended with 5% biodiesel or bioethanol.

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