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  SUSTAINABLE ENERGY   -  Movement on the biofuel front

This year could be a green year for motor vehicles. In February, the Commission published its European Union Strategy for Biofuels, setting out seven policy axes for success. This was followed by the publication of the Biofrac (Biofuels Research Advisory Committee) report, drawn up by a group of experts from large companies and research institutes. Entitled Biofuels in the EU – A vision for 2030 and beyond, this document looks at the current state of knowledge and long-term prospects, proposing a consumption target of 25% of these natural fuels within three decades, compared with under 1% today. The report was discussed at a conference held in Brussels in June, shortly after the launch of the Technological Platform for Biofuels in Paris. Meanwhile, the individual Member States are taking an increasing number of national measures.

Movement on the biofuel front
Biofuels is the name given to the vast family of products obtained from plants whose common characteristic is the ability to power motor vehicles. The reason for all the movement over recent months is that they are beginning to look like a solution – at least in part – to the increasingly tangible problems of which the Europeans are increasingly aware. The first of these is climate change, which is fuelled by CO2 emissions generated by our massive consumption of fossil fuels. As the transport sector represents 30% of the EU’s energy consumption and 98% of it operates on fossil fuels, this is an area with considerable potential for cutting emissions. It is an opportunity that is all the more important to seize as the sector is continuing to grow rapidly and is still increasing its energy consumption, compared with industry and households that have managed to stabilise consumption.

As the Biofrac report openly admits: “The growth of the transport sector is seen as one of the principal reasons for the EU’s inability to achieve its Kyoto targets – 90% of the increase in CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2010 is expected to be attributable to transport.”

Strategy and development
Evaluation of a vehicle fuelled by bio-ethanol. © IFP
Evaluation of a vehicle fuelled by bio-ethanol.
But the benefits of biofuels are not only climatic. “Known oil reserves are limited in quantity,” stresses the Strategy for biofuels, “and they lie in a limited number of the world’s regions.” This brings geopolitical risks. Reducing Europe’s dependence on hydrocarbons is seen as an imperative, especially given the recent heights to which barrel prices have soared. As to electrical and hydrogen vehicles, these are not ready for use on a large scale. Finally, the European countryside, which has been emptying for decades, needs to find new markets for its produce. The revitalisation of economically weakened rural areas due to a switch to biofuels would be a consequence of our climatic problems as welcome as it would be unexpected.

Obstacle race
But biofuels do not offer a miracle solution. In its ‘vision’ for 2030, the Biofrac report estimates that Europe could increase its biofuel consumption to 25% of market needs. This figure is generally regarded as ambitious – given the failure to meet the target of 2% for 2005, set three years previously. The reality is that there are some serious obstacles to be overcome before these fuels can be used on a mass scale.

"The first obstacle is quite simply economic,” explains Alexandre Rojey, one of the Biofrac report’s author and researcher at the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP). “Biofuel production costs are still high, even if rising crude oil prices are making them more competitive. Then there is the obstacle of the investment needed. To increase production by a factor of ten or 20 in two decades, you have to build a great many processing plants and also overcome distribution and other problems.”

Last but not least, there is the obstacle of supply. Present biofuels are produced at the rate of about one tonne oil equivalent per cultivated hectare. Admittedly, there is land lying fallow in Europe, but the target of 5.75% for biofuels set by the EU for 2010 would mean allocating 18 million hectares to their production – out of a total cultivable area of about 100 million hectares for the 25 Member States. One can, therefore, already see the risk of competition with the agri-foodstuffs industry resulting in a price explosion for certain agricultural products. Even at the present very low level of biofuel production, upward pressure on colza prices is already causing problems for the agri-foodstuffs sector.

The second generation
An Estefip-H pilot unit for the production of biodiesel at the Institut Français du Pétrole in Lyon (FR) © IFP
An Estefip-H pilot unit for the production of biodiesel at the Institut Français du Pétrole in Lyon (FR)
This is why the Biofrac report is placing a lot of hope in the ‘second-generation’ biofuels. These are plants or fractions that are not in direct competition with plants grown for food and can be residues from agricultural activity (straw, etc.) or from certain industries (the ‘black liquor’ from paper producers), or sawdust and shavings from the timber industry. More generally, it is possible to use the lignocellulosic biomass, which is currently under-exploited in Europe and which originates in forestry resources. These potential raw materials have a high cellulose content and a molecule that forms long very resistant chains that has to be broken down to extract the energy from it.

"This is the crux of the problem for this second generation,” explains Rojey. “Essentially, we have two options. The first is biochemical and involves extracting the sugar and glucose using very efficient enzymes. The other, known as ‘biomass to liquids’ or BTL, involves first gasifying the raw material to a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and then transforming this mixture into a liquid fuel, a process that involves a number of intermediate stages. Technologically this is a complex operation that has not yet been implemented in full.”

The New Improvement for Lignocellulosic Ethanol (NILE) project, involving 21 partners from 11 countries, is part of this European effort to introduce second-generation biofuels. Its aim is to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of converting lignocellulosic biomass made up of various residues and waste from agriculture and forestry into alcohol. The ultimate aim is to build a fully integrated pilot plant as a precursor to a future demonstration installation.

A third option also deserves a mention. This consists of fermenting plant material and capturing the methane emitted for use as vehicle fuel. The technology for such natural gas vehicles exists and generates very little local pollution (particles, nitrogen oxides, unburned hydrocarbons, etc.). A number of municipal bus fleets are already fitted with engines of this kind. The difficulty – as with all gaseous fuels – is to solve the particularly complex problems of supply. Nevertheless, some countries, notably Sweden, are managing to develop the use of biogas for vehicles.

Two sides of the environment coin
A Proléa machine producing biofuels in Sète. © Proléa
A Proléa machine producing biofuels in Sète.
© Proléa
But is there not a danger to the environment in advocating such a radical development of biofuels? Are these not – at least for the first-generation biofuels – the products of the very kind of intensive farming practices that we know damage natural ecosystems? “The environmental impact of biofuels is a much-discussed subject and it is certainly something that has to be watched,” confirms Rojey. “In our report, we, in fact, stress the need for production criteria that are compatible with sustainable development.” In their work, the Biofrac experts were able to draw on a fascinating study carried out in 2005 by the European Environment Agency (EEA) with the explicit title of How much biomass can Europe use without damaging the environment? In the scenario they present, the authors define a number of parameters that correspond to a preserved environment. They consider, for example, that there is a need to maintain extensively cultivated agricultural areas and in their hypotheses meadows, olive groves or dehesa (open forests, often with pastures) are all preserved. Also, at least 30% of agricultural land in the majority of the Member States must be dedicated to farming – biological or otherwise – that protects the environment. Other requirements defined include the conservation of currently protected forestry areas, the ‘sustainable’ exploitation of forestry resources and the cultivation of plants grown for their energy potential in a way that minimises the impact.

Optimistic figures
 Despite these constraints, the EEA’s conclusions are generally encouraging. “Significant quantities of biomass can be made technically available for ambitious renewable energy policies, even if strict environmental rules are applied,” believe the researchers. They also quantify what they believe to be possible: whereas primary biomass potential is about 69 MtOE (millions of tonnes of oil equivalent) today, it could be increased to 190 million in 2010 and reach 295 MtOE in 2030, while continuing to respect the environment. But the authors also issue the warning that “without the necessary incentives and appropriate protection to mobilise potential in a way that respects the environment, even much more modest biomass production could cause increased environmental pressure”. That means that there can be no question of embarking on a chaotic ‘biomass rush’ which could cause pollution, erosion, soil depletion and the loss of biodiversity.

The CO2 question  
There remains one question to which the answer is uncertain. What is the ‘exact’ quantity of CO2 that could be saved through the use of biofuels? When one burns the biomass originating in plant material – as is the case for all cultivated crops but not for deforestation – one can consider that all the carbon released in the form of CO2 is recycled carbon which was captured in the atmosphere and is therefore ‘neutral’ in terms of the environment. It is as if the field or forest served as a kind of natural solar panel, stocking the energy received from the sun’s rays in a chemical form. But in practice the net result can be less favourable. To be productive, the field must be treated with fertiliser, the production of which consumes fossil energy, as does the processing of the harvested crop (distillation, esterification, etc.) Then, there is transport and the movement of machines. When everything is taken into account, the reduction in terms of emissions generated by biofuels works out at around 50%. This is not of course a precise figure as the variations are considerable depending on climatic conditions, the plant varieties considered, the transformation technology used and even the methods of calculation. But all the sector professionals agree that an improvement in this figure – up to 70% or more – is a realistic objective; as is a substantial reduction in the costs. But this will require a major research effort on a number of fronts. The Biofrac report stresses “the need not to concentrate on any one product or technology today, but to create an environment in which these technologies and products can evolve.” This effort on many fronts must range from plant biotechnologies to the design of vehicle engines, a crucial factor of course being the second-generation of biofuels. In a competitive world in which biofuels will inevitably assume major importance, this effort will be decisive for the future of European vehicle, fuel and biomass producers. But, above all, it will be decisive for our planet.

  Alcohols and esters  
  Although convenient, the term biofuel has the drawback of being somewhat imprecise. It covers a wide range of products resulting from very diverse processes, some limited to the experimental field while others have been commercially available for decades. The products used at present, often described as ‘first generation’, belong principally to two clearly defined families. First there are the alcohols, principally ethanol, obtained from sugar fermentation. Although cereals (such as wheat) are suitable for their production, the most energy efficient method – when possible from an agricultural point of view – is to produce them from sugary plants, such as beet, or sugar cane in the Tropics. Ethanol is a fuel that can be added in concentrations of 10% without requiring any engine modification and in any proportion in a vehicle equipped with ‘flex-fuel’ technology, which most European manufacturers have now mastered. The second family is the esters of vegetable oils or biodiesels, obtained from oleaginous plants, such as colza, sunflower or even palm oil. These esters can be used in diesel engines and in diesel fuel without engine modification.


  From the well to the wheel…  
  Check out the Internet: the WTW (Well to Wheels) study compares the energy use and associated emissions for various fuels and engine types. It seems, for example, that ethanol-generates different CO2 emissions depending on whether it is produced from wheat, sugar beet, or sugar cane, and whether it powers a ‘normal’ vehicle or flex-fuel vehicle. The study was carried out jointly by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra (IT), Concawe (the oil companies’ European association for environment, health and safety in refining and distribution) and Eucar (European Council for Automotive Research and Development). The figures were updated in May 2006.


  Brazil – and the others  
  Brazil was the world’s leading ethanol producer in 2005, pumping out 16.7 million tonnes. It is the only country in the world where biofuel is able to compete with oil products without tax measures to support it. It was back in 1975, following the first oil crisis, that the South American giant first turned its attention to ethanol production to reduce its energy dependence. It is fortunate in that in the hot and humid climate of the Tropics the sugar cane suited to this production grows particularly quickly. The Brazilians have also succeeded in optimising ethanol production by using every part of the plant in the production cycle and developing a comprehensive distribution network. The result is that 77% of the vehicles sold in Brazil are equipped with flex-fuel technology, despite being (slightly) more expensive to buy. Drivers can therefore fill up with ethanol or petrol as they wish, depending on the fluctuating prices (ethanol is currently €0.77 a litre). Having acquired the know-how, Brazil is now an ethanol exporter and plans to develop the sector further. Nevertheless, the environmental impact of this biofuel is the subject of debate. Sugar cane producers have pledged to increase their production without cutting down a single tree, but they are cultivating grazing land, thereby causing livestock farmers to fell trees – and it is deforestation in the tropics that is a major cause of CO2 emissions.

The United States ranks second for ethanol production (16.6 million tonnes in 2005), with a particularly committed policy. Asia produced 6.6 million tonnes in 2005 – including 3.8 million in China alone – and the European Union produced just 3 million tonnes.

But when it comes to bio-diesel, the EU is easily the world number one, producing almost 2 million tonnes in 2004. The reason for this is the number of diesel cars running on its roads. A number of major players (the United States, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Indonesia) are planning to enter this market, so we should see a very rapid increase in volume over the years to come. The EU objective is to reach 18 million tonnes for methanol and biodiesel combined by 2010.


  An EU strategy for biofuels  
  Seven principal points constitute the EU strategy for biofuels, published in February 2006:

1. Stimulate demand for biofuels by encouraging their use or even by setting binding targets to be achieved by Member States.
2. Act in favour of the environment, for example, by ensuring the sustainable nature of raw material crops and examining the quality problems of fuels.
3. Develop production and distribution, in particular by removing technical barriers.
4. Broaden the field of raw material supply by looking at the possibility of using various waste or by-products, among other things.
5. Strengthen trade.
6. Help developing countries to produce their own biofuels sustainably.
7. Pursue research and development by seeking to improve present technologies, as well as the development of second-generation fuels, and by employing the life sciences and biotechnologies to improve production systems.