How viable are biofuels?

Gail Rajgor

Part one: With an increased focus on biofuels as an energy solution, have policy makers been too optimistic about how soon second-generation biofuels can be developed?

This article is taken from the November/December issue of Renewable Energy Focus (REFocus) magazine. For a free subscription, click here.

COUNTLESS COUNTRIES around the world are banking on Brazil to help meet their biofuels mandates, which require an increasing proportion of transport fuels to come from renewables. However, while the world's oil majors have upped their activities in the field significantly, recent research indicates that policy makers need to have a major rethink - or risk missing their targets altogether.

There has certainly been major activity in the sector; Shell and Cosan announced one of the biggest biofuels deals to date, a multi-billion dollar joint venture called Raízen. It aims to produce and sell over 2 billion litres of low-carbon ethanol made from sugarcane in Brazil. For Shell, one of the largest distributors of biofuels, this is its first move into production. And it sends a clear signal that demand for biofuels is set to surge.

“Low-carbon, sustainable biofuels will be increasingly important in the global transport fuel mix,” says Peter Voser, Shell's ceo. Biofuels currently make up around 4% of transport fuel in Europe, and 3% in the U.S., but new energy policies in both regions are calling for more renewable, lower-carbon fuels for transport.

Under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), EU member states are targeting 10% by 2020, while the U.S. will want 20% by 2022. Globally, Shell expects biofuels to meet about 9% of road transport demand by 2030, up from around 3% today.

As a result of RED, demand in Europe for alternatives to biodiesel has grown most noticeably: “Looking at the national action plans you see a much greater increase in ethanol consumption than in biodiesel consumption,” says Maelle Soares-Pinto, Hart Energy Consulting's director for Europe and Africa, Global Biofuels Centre. “This doesn't mean that ethanol is becoming the predominant biofuel in Europe, but there is a very sharp increase in the forecast consumption of ethanol.”

In addition, due to bioethanol's high greenhouse gas saving qualities, EU members are looking to the fuel to meet the Fuel Quality Directive mandate - reducing the greenhouse gas emission of fuels by 6%, over and above the RED targets.

So demand has even come from the likes of Germany, notes Tammy Klein, assistant vice president of Hart Energy. Germany is one of the largest, if not the largest, biodiesel producing and consuming countries (not only in Europe but in the world) so it's been seen as a surprise in some sense that a traditional biodiesel consuming market is suddenly looking to import sugarcane ethanol as a way to meet its targets on the Renewable Energy Directive, she notes. And demand from Japan and China will also add to the pressure on supply chains, she says.

Banking on Brazil

This all makes Brazil – the world's leading sugarcane ethanol producer – a key focus, and is why companies like Shell are increasing their activity there: “Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol is one of the most sustainable and lowest CO2 biofuels available,” says Mark Gainsborough, Shell executive vice-president Alternative Energies. It also “remains by far and away the most commercially viable advanced biofuel option,” adds Frederick L Potter, Hart Energy's executive vice president.

According to Brazilian sugarcane industry association, Unica, Brazilian sugarcane yields 7000 litres of ethanol per hectare of cane compared to 3800 litres for a hectare of corn in the US and 2500 litres for a hectare of wheat in Europe. “Turning sugarcane into ethanol offers a number of environmental benefits over other biofuel production processes,” adds Shell. “As it grows, sugarcane generally absorbs CO2 at a greater rate than other biofuel crops such as soy.”

Plus, ethanol made from Brazilian sugarcane “produces around 70% less CO2 than petrol, when the cultivation and production processes are taken into account”, it says. Unica says the use of ethanol in Brazil since 2003 has avoided over 103 million tonnes of the CO2 that the petrol it… …has replaced would have produced. By-products from the sugarcane-to-ethanol process, meanwhile, are also recycled as organic fertiliser, and plant waste (bagasse) is burned to produce power for the processing mills - with any surplus energy supplied to the national grid.

“Countries in Europe, along with the U.S., Japan and China, require more than three billion gallons in Brazilian sugarcane ethanol for their respective markets by 2020,” says Klein, noting that too few other countries are in a position to export advanced bioethanol supplies.

However, domestic demand for sugarcane ethanol in Brazil, which is already strong, is also set to grow further, meaning less export availability through 2020, she points out. “There's a lot of internal demand in Brazil itself because of the growth in the flexi-fuel vehicle market, and the economic growth that's going on in the country in general.”

Indeed, Brazil leads the world in the use of biofuels for transport and by 2030 they are likely to make up more than 40% of the country's transport fuel mix, double today's proportion. At the pump Brazilian motorists are offered the choice of pure ethanol or a blend of petrol (gasoline) and ethanol, and around 90% of the country's new cars can run on either fuel type.

“There is really going to be a supply constraint on Brazil,” says Klein, signalling a major supply chain bottleneck globally. Indeed, Hart Energy's latest research, published in Global Biofuels Outlook, 2011-2020: Projecting Market Demand by Country, Region and Globally, projects that “less than 10%-12% of the total supply requirements will be commercially available” by 2020.

Time to get real?

“Governments [around the world] are a little bit separated or divorced from the market reality,” Klein says. Soares-Pinto agrees: “Globally, not just in Europe, policies are [a] bit over ambitious. The volumes are just not there.”

Initiatives like Raízen will undoubtedly help. “We expect the development of advanced biofuels to benefit from Cosan's feedstock and its expertise in large-scale biofuels production. This has the potential to accelerate the future commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol,” says Gainsborough. “Ready to offer international markets a clean, renewable and economically viable solution” it is “a turning point in the search for alternative energy sources,” adds Rubens Ometto Silveira Mello, Cosan's chairman of the Board.

However, by Raízen's own admission, it's current annual production capacity will be enough to meet just 9% of current ethanol demand in Brazil alone, so while new players have entered the space, there needs to be a major increase in capacity expansion, Klein says. “There will be expansion of sugarcane acreage, but it's going to take a few years to catch up,” she says. Plus, getting the capital to expand production capabilities has been an issue. “Higher feedstock prices and less Government incentives have cooled capital lending in the finance sector,” she notes.

Of course, besides Shell, other oil giants like BP and Neste are also funding advanced biofuel projects, and this plays a critical role. “At the end of the day they are the ones paying the penalties when they don't meet the biofuel targets in many countries, so they have a commercial interest,” Soares-Pinto says. But development by the oil majors alone will not be enough.

“One of two economic and policy developments needs to occur,” says Potter. The price of Brazilian ethanol needs to increase further than it is now projected, to provide adequate market incentives for additional cane acreage and bioethanol production; otherwise the public policy targets in the U.S. and the EU, which rely so heavily on sugarcane ethanol and other advanced bio-ethanol supplies, need to be modified, he says.

The U.S. Congress “will ultimately have to modify the total RFS2 requirement by 2022 and modestly increase the longer-term requirements for corn-based ethanol under the programme to compensate for the shortfall in commercial cellulosic biofuels volumes,” Hart's outlook report says.

Part two: Biofuels Standards - for European players, sustainability requirements add extra pressure...

About the author: Gail Rajgor is a writer working across the energy & environment sector. She is the former publisher of Sustainable Energy Developments magazine.



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16 February 2012
What nonsense?,.... Dr. Rattan Lal sees no nonsense.

Regular biomass combustion systems struggle to be CO2e neutral, Thermal conversion systems conserve the elemental carbon in the biomass by only burning the hydro-carbon gas & bio-oils, or converting them to tank-ready fuels.
The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

FAO on Conservation Agricultural:
"In general, soil carbon sequestration during the first decade of adoption of best conservation agricultural practices is 1.8 tons CO2 per hectare per year. On 5 billion hectares of agricultural land, this could represent one-third of the current annual global emission of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels (i.e., 27 Pg CO2 per year)." http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/doc/CA_SSC_Overview.pdf

Adding just 1 Ton of Biochar per hectare, (800 lbs / acre), would cover 100% Current Annual Fossil CO2 Emissions.

Work by C. Steiner, at U of GA, showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as an organic nitrogen fertilizer. http://www.ibi2010.org/wp-content/uploads/BiocharPoultrySteiner.pdf

Personally, the one most rewarding moment of the year was after returning from my talk to the EPA chiefs in Montreal, I sent the text to the climate change office at DOE with a cc to Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, the most cited soil scientist in the world, ( or as Dr.Jeff Novak at ARS joked; "In the universe" :). Dr. Lal replied to me with thanks and was impressed, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept. Your humble gardener was On cloud 9 for weeks.
A report , text & links are here;

Instigation of,in situ, Biochar Hg remediation with DuPont ran a close second, A 95% reduction of Hg uptake in the food chain was most impressive. On the email train I have going with this DuPont & ORNL collaboration, Dr. Antal of U of HI added contacts to Dow's counter part environmental engineer to Richard Landis at DuPont, I hope to spark them to join in this ORNL collaboration..

finely Re-Instigation of field trials at the Rodale Institute with Dr. Robert M East and Dr. Elaine Ingham

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University

EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750

Terry de Winne said

16 February 2012
No wonder the writer of the foregoing prefers to remain anonymous - most of what appears is nonsense.
Firstly, the object of carbon sequestration is admirable - but the essence is lost amongst a load of gobbledegook. Yes, soil carbon is liberated when land use change occurs - but this is temporary. When the biomass is grown, carbon is captured both in the foliage and the root structure, thus replacing the carbon that was lost. The foliage is then used to replace fossil fuels, be it by production of biofuels or use of the biomass as an energy resource. THIS is where the savings occur - by not using fossil fuels (which have already sequestrated carbon) to produce the energy!
Burying the char back into the ground defeats the object of the exercise.
The misconception of total carbon liberation has been usd by so-called environmentalist and scientists - and bureaucrats - to hinder the progress of more informed alternative fuel producers.
There has been so much hype appearing, contradictory to the use of common sense and realisation of the problems to be faced by our descendants. Promises appear daily of second, third generation biofuels and are treated as the Holy Grail - at the expense of existing technology. A hundred years ago, we had a sustainable society. Now, population growth and a state of rampant consumerism has taken over - and we are to blame.
Dismiss academic rhetoric - use your common sense instead.
Terry de Winne

Anonymous said

26 January 2012
Big Wig consortiums like Catchlight Energy LLC, a joint venture of Chevron Corp and Weyerhaeuser Co, with Kior , and AlipaJet, SynGest & Honeywell, A Virgin Airline & Dynamotive & GE Wedding, GE also backed CoolPlanet Biofuels, with BP, Conoco & Google go to show that main stream corporations are showing much more than just interest in Biochar thermal conversion systems.

All policy incentives should be restructured to Establish Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability for all biofuel systems. To pay farmers, as Australia does, the full value for building soil-C. Curing the illness of externalizing the cost of fossil carbon by sequestering it to attain the highest continuing benefits. The cited ills of of biofuels' Carbon foot print, food security & sustainability issues cascade away with integrated bio refining of carbon, nutrients and energy.

The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative. [1] [2] [3]

Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles. A 50% reduction of NH3 loss when composting. Ag manure char absorbs phosphorus for nutrient credit income, CHP, Biomass Crop & energy grants and when carbon comes to account, another big credit. The compounding soil benefits; reduced nitrogen loss & soil Nitrous-oxide
emissions and a 17% increased water efficiency are documented in trials across soil types and climates. The production of ammonia and char from biomass and other third generation companies aiming for drop-in fuels, can free agriculture from fossil energy. [4] [5]

The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation; This stakeholder effort with the USDA & EPA, Reviewed by both Congressional Ag Committees, who asked for expansion to ISO status, the goal now is to get the world on the same soil carbon page. [6]

Economic at all Scales;
Local economic stimulus is at all scales of development, from the Global Clean Cook Stove Initiative, to base load manure systems, to industrial biomass power production. Replacing "Three Stone" stoves with biomass stoves, the health effects equal the eradication of Malaria & AIDs combined. Delivering carbon credits to developing countries would further economic stimulus. [7]

The Major Endorsements include:
Dr. Jim Hansen, Dr. James Lovelock,
Nobel laureates; Al Gore and Dr. Mario Molina,
Politicians; Tony Blair, Tony Abbott, Secretaries Salazar & Vilsack,
Environmentalist; Tim Flannery, Bill McKibben, Richard Branson & his Carbon War Room.

The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running all around us, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, soil is the only beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thank you for your efforts.

See all cited links here;
"Five Minutes with Lisa Jackson et al"

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