Advanced biofuels are essential to transport’s green transformation

Advanced biofuels are essential to transport’s green transformation

EURACTIV — 2022-11-03

News from Brussels

Advanced biofuels made from waste products do not impact land use, making them an ideal means to decarbonise the current vehicle fleet, as well as transport modes unsuited to electrification, writes Nicholas Ball (Dr Nicholas Ball is the CEO of XFuel, a company producing drop-in fuels for the road, marine, and aviation industries).

Despite impressive gains, we cannot solely rely on electrification to fix greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the EU. Unless something changes drastically, the transport sector could be on track to eat up all of the EU’s share of the 1.5°C carbon budget between now and 2050, according to the ICCT. 

When we look across road, sea and air, it is clear that if we are to reach ambitious Paris-compliant goals by 2050, we need to look at a range of solutions – one of which is sustainably sourced second-generation biofuel. 

The use of biofuels in Europe has been rightly scrutinised due to first generation biofuels and their reliance on food crops, impacting food security, land use and the wider environment. Furthermore, the fuels produced are unable to be blended at higher ratios.

But a new generation of fuels from waste feedstocks presents an opportunity to accelerate transportation’s low carbon transformation.

Fully electric cars represented 11% of new car sales across the EU in the first half of 2022. The figure for commercial vehicles, such as vans and lorries, is far lower. 

The average service life of a car is over 13 years, and vehicles sold today will remain on the road for years to come. Even if the EU were to ban the sale of all bar fully electric vehicles today, it is unlikely that the majority of the 250 million vehicles on EU roads would run on pure battery power within the next decade. 

Other transportation sectors face more extreme dilemmas. For example, there are no clear, commercially or technically viable alternatives today to current liquid fuels for the maritime sector. 

Ships have an average service life of 25-30 years. Some vessels built today may be retrofitted later in their life to use other propulsion methods, but we are decades away from hydrogen or methanol or ammonia – or some other solution – driving the majority of the European shipping fleet, let alone the global fleet. 

Aviation faces similar issues, with hydrogen or battery-powered planes still in early development. 

This means that electrification alone is not enough for European transportation to achieve the EU’s net-zero ambition. Indeed, the EU’s most recently revised climate plan, or Nationally Determined Contribution, sets a 55% emissions reduction target by 2030, and includes emissions from road transport, aviation, and domestic waterborne navigation across the bloc. 

As highlighted by the recently released UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2022, only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster. Without proper action today, these targets will be missed.

Accelerating the transition

Scrapping and replacing all existing engines a decade or more early is not a feasible option. It would also represent an enormous financial cost and impact in terms of damaging vehicle lifecycle sustainability. This means that we need a net-zero answer for engines that were designed to run on fossil fuels. 

Advanced biofuels represent the ideal solution. Today, we have breakthrough technology which produces ‘drop in’ fuels that match the specifications of traditional hydrocarbon fuels. In turn, this means that these fuels can be safely used as a complete replacement or as part of any blend with existing engines and infrastructure. 

The adoption of such technology has the added bonus of reducing reliance on fuel imports. Given the impact the political landscape and global market instability can have on fossil fuel price and availability, this represents a strategic advantage. 

Incorporating large amounts of these sustainable fuels into current fuel infrastructure would rapidly cut net transport emissions today. This provides a sustainable pathway to faster decarbonisation. 

Scaling up

A biofuel is only as viable as the feedstock used to make it. These biomass building blocks can dictate the overall sustainability, price, and scalability of a biofuel.  

For example, traditional first-generation biofuels use crops as feedstock. This either requires large amounts of land to be dedicated to new biofuel crops or for food crops to be diverted to biofuel use. 

This change in land use can have devastating impacts on ecosystems and deforestation when biofuels are produced at scale. As a result, we are seeing first-generation biofuels being phased out through policy change.

Second-generation biofuels were designed to address this issue. By using exclusively waste products to create liquid fuels, second-generation biofuels do not impact land use and do not represent the same sustainability challenge at scale. 

That being said, advanced fuels can face their own set of challenges. Certain types of waste are less abundant than others, hindering a fuel’s scalability and widespread adoption. One particular example of this is waste vegetable oils and animal fats, which are used to create a ‘drop in’ second-generation biofuel such as HVO. 

Such fuels are an important effort in decarbonising transportation, however, the supply of these oils and fats is relatively limited and geographically inconsistent – and can hence only be scaled up so far. This is making waste vegetable oils a scarce commodity and is already inflating the price of HVO fuels.

There is another way. Lignocellulosic waste is an abundant feedstock which can be sustainably sourced and is globally available in large enough quantities to meet current and growing demand. 

New refinery technologies have made lignocellulosic waste-derived ‘drop in’ biofuels a reality. This kind of waste can be sourced from the manufacturing and building sectors through wood shavings, the forestry sector through responsible forestry management, and the agricultural sector through waste almond shells or olive pips, for example.

When coupled with new refinery processes, this can create highly refined ‘drop in’ fuels with remarkable energy transfer rates – at a similar or lower price to traditional fossil fuels, even on a smaller scale.

Electrifying transportation – or switching to other energy carriers – will take time, and in some sectors and cases may not be a viable option. In the best-case scenario, it will take a decade for enough new engines and infrastructure to be built that can mainstream these solutions. 

Advanced biofuels are critical to substantially accelerate these decarbonisation timelines, and can be delivered sustainably and cost-effectively today.