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Non-nuclear energy

Spotlight on Biofuels: Biofuels on the road

Fission and radiation protection

February 2005
Issue 3

Spotlight on Biofuels

Biofuels on the road

Biofuels provide alternative fuels for the transport sector, which is currently almost completely dependent on one fuel – oil – and accounts for more than 30% of final energy consumption in the European Union. In the EU, 70% of the oil is imported, which makes us dangerously dependent and vulnerable to the fluctuations in the world oil markets.

The most common biofuels used in the transport sector are biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas. Biodiesel is used as an additive for diesel fuel. Bioethanol can be used directly as a petrol additive or in the form of ETBE, composed of about half bioethanol and half fossil fuels. Biogas, after upgrading to biomethane by removal of CO2 and compression, can be used in natural gas engines. Other biofuels that can be derived from waste and residues account for only a small share.

The transport sector produces one-third of total CO2 emissions. The use of biofuels represents a key option for reducing the pressure on the levels of atmospheric carbon as biofuels consume significantly less fossil energy and produce less greenhouse gas than gasoline or diesel. The CO2 emissions produced by using biofuels in transport are balanced by the CO2 absorbed by the plants as they grow.

Biofuels are relatively expensive, around €500/1 000 litres for biofuels, compared with €200-250/1000 litres for oil-based fuels at USD30/barrel. In addition, the current car technology and limited infrastructure narrow down the possibilities for the use of biofuels in the transport sector. The additional costs may, however, be justified by benefits across the policy fields (security of energy supply, health, environment).

Biofuels in the EU energy mix

Biofuels currently contribute less than 1% of total European transport fuel consumption – but this contribution has risen progressively over the past decade. Combined European production (EU-15) of ethanol and biodiesel was 1.7 million tonnes (equivalent to 1.5 million tonnes) in 2003. The figure represents about 26% growth with respect to 2002, but it is still far from the target set in the White Paper on transport policy (5.75% market share for biofuels by 2010).

The preference for biodiesel or bioethanol production varies among the EU Member States. The biodiesel sector represents the largest share of EU liquid biofuel production, accounting for 82.2% of the total production. Germany is the leading biodiesel producer in the EU, followed by France and Italy. From the ten new Member States, the Czech Republic has a substantial production capacity.

World production of biofuels for transport is led by Brazil and the United States, which both concentrate on bioethanol. In 2003, over 18.3 million tonnes of bioethanol were produced worldwide, with Brazil accounting for 9.9 tonnes – over 20 times European production. All petrol sold in Brazil contains around 25% of bioethanol. The high production levels in Brazil and the United States arise from their early adoption of biofuels driven by the desire to reduce import dependence and make use of the potential of the agricultural sector.


  • To raise the share of biofuels in the transport fuel market to 2% by December 2005.
  • To raise the share of biofuels in the transport fuel market to 5.75% by December 2010.


  • Directive 2003/30/EC on the promotion of the use of biofuels and other renewable fuels for transport.
  • Directive 2003/96/EC restructuring the Community framework for the taxation of energy products and electricity.

In the EU, Spain is currently the biggest bioethanol producer. Poland is second in rank in the EU-25 and is the only country among the new Member States that has a developed bioethanol sector. Sweden imports considerable amounts of bioethanol to cover the needs of an increasingly dual-fuel car fleet driven by both oil and bioethanol.

Measures to promote the use of biofuels in the transport sector

Prototype of a Volvo truck, developed under the EC-funded AFFORHD project, modified to run on DME. The truck will be presented for the first time at the SYNBIOS conference (see Future Event), and will feature in the next RENEWS issue
Prototype of a Volvo truck, developed under the EC-funded AFFORHD project, modified to run on DME. The truck will be presented for the first time at the SYNBIOS conference (see Future Event), and will feature in the next RENEWS issue

Taking into account the advantages of biofuels in terms of climate change and security of supply, EU has adopted legislation and set targets for the use of biofuels in transport. These measures include a Directive aimed at increasing the use of biofuels in the transport sector and one allowing the EU Member States to exempt biofuels from fuel taxation.

The indicative target set through the Directive 2003/30/EC is to increase the share of biofuels in diesel and gasoline used for the transport sector to 5.75% by 2010. This compares with 0.6% in 2002, including the contribution of the ten new Member States. In the Czech Republic, biofuels already had a share of 1.3% of all automotive fuels in 2001.

The new Member States are subject to the requirements of the Directive. As a follow-up to these two Directives, the Commission has already published a Communication on the current share of renewable energy in the EU (COM(2004) 366 final). A more precise report will be published in 2006. If the objectives of the biofuels Directive are to be achieved, the contribution of biofuels will have to increase from 1.4 Mtoe in 2001 to 19 Mtoe in 2010.

In addition to policy measures, the European Commission supports research into biofuels. The Directorate-General for Research and the Directorate-General for Energy and Transport  both coordinate short- and long-term research and demonstration actions which aim to improve the technologies used throughout the biofuel production chain and reduce the cost of producing biofuels. Many research projects are currently running which focus on the different aspects of overcoming the current technical barriers to the wider use of biofuels (see, for example, RENEW, NoE Bioenergy and CHRISGAS as described in this newsletter).


Biofuels used in the transport sector are liquid or gaseous fuels produced from biomass and intended for the operation of vehicle combustion engines.

The term biomass means biodegradable fractions of products, waste or residues from agriculture and forestry (including vegetal and animal substances), as well as the biodegradable fraction of industrial and municipal waste.

The most common biofuels are biodiesel, usually produced from rape seed, sunflower seed or used cooking oils, and bioethanol obtained from fermenting beet, corn, barley or wheat.

Biofuels in the future

Wood chips: one of the primary sources for biofuelsproduction.
Wood chips: one of the primary sources for biofuelsproduction.
Biofuels offer clear advantages in terms of security of supply and reducing the dependency on oil, as they have a different geopolitical origin to oil. In the future, the EU should be able to increase its production of biofuels using European forest and agricultural resources. The taxation policies and the active policies the Member States will put in place have an influence on the future of biofuels. Several Member States have already partly or completely removed taxes on biofuels following the implementation of EU legislation. Nonetheless, there is still a strong need for more political will to invest in renewables.

The progress made by biofuels up to 2010 will also depend on developments in fuel quality standards, the competitiveness of biofuels, the development of new biofuel technologies and the sourcing of biomass for biofuels. Coherent research, development and deployment strategy are therefore required to bring out their full potential.

The establishment of a European Technology Platform for biofuels is on the European agenda for the development, promotion and implementation of biofuels. This Technology Platform would bring together interested stakeholders and coordinate and implement research and deployment activities for biofuels over the long term.


The following products come under the term ‘biofuels for transport’, provided that they are used as fuels or a fuel component for the operation of vehicle combustion engines:

Biodiesel: a methyl-ester produced from vegetableor animal oil, of diesel quality.
Biodimethylether: dimethylether produced frombiomass.
Bioethanol: ethanol produced from biomass and/orthe biodegradable fraction of waste.
Biogas: a fuel gas produced from biomass and/or from the biodegradable fraction of waste, that can be purified to natural gas quality.
Biohydrogen: hydrogen produced from biomass, and/or from the biodegradable fraction of waste.
Biomethanol: methanol produced from biomass.
Bio-ETBE (ethyl-tertio-butyl-ether): ETBE produced on the basis of bioethanol. The percentage by volume of bio-ETBE that is calculated as biofuel is 47%.
Bio-MTBE (methyl-tertio-butyl-ether) : a fuel produced on the basis of biomethanol. The percentage by volume of bio-MTBE that is calculated as biofuel is 36%.
DME (di-methyl-ether) : is one of the most appropriate biofuels for power generation including heavy duty trucks.
Pure vegetable oil : oil produced from oil plants through pressing, extraction or comparable procedures, crude or refined but chemically unmodified.
Synthetic biofuels : synthetic hydrocarbons or mixtures of synthetic hydrocarbons which have been produced from biomass.

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