In the age of green campaigning and global warming, biofuels are increasingly being seen as the solution. Made from organic sources, biodiesel and bioethanol are being touted as replacements for diesel and petrol.
Green campaigners hail them as more environmentally-friendly because of their lack of reliance on fossil fuels in an age of depleting stocks and rising prices.
Sales of biofuels in the UK are rocketing. They rose in 2006 to around 20 million litres a month, making up 0.5% of all fuel sales – double that of 2005.
In December’s pre-budget report, chancellor Gordon Brown announced that he was considering tax breaks for company car drivers who use biofuels on top of the existing 20 pence-per-litre fuel duty reduction for biodiesel and bioethanol.
The government is keen to convert people to the idea of fuel made from plants rather than fossils. Its Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) pledges to ensure that 5% of all fuel sold in Britain will be biofuel by 2010/11. And the European Commission is expected to announce mandatory targets of 10% biofuels by 2020.
To provide it means converting a lot of crops. To meet the 5% target by 2010/11 using home-grown produce will need six million hectares of fields.
FARMERS will be crucial to supply, which has led to concern that increasing demand will mean competition between crops for food and crops for fuel.
In the US, the Earth Policy Institute warns that the country has underestimated the amount of its corn supply that will be needed to reach its bio-ethanol production targets. This could increase the cost of food around the world.
In the UK, however, the National Farmers’ Union has thrown its backing behind bio-fuels. It has even taken delivery of a Flexi-Fuel Ford Focus to put its money where its mouth is.
David Proudley, non-food crops and seeds adviser for the NFU, says: ‘The current spare capacity in UK farming could provide the feedstock required for 5% bio-fuels, using exportable wheat surplus, 559,000 hectares of land set-aside and 140,000 hectares of fallow land.
‘We believe that technological advances across the whole of the production chain will allow further fuel yield from land as the industry develops and experience and R&D increases.’
The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agrees. A spokesperson says: ‘With advances in technology, it is estimated that by 2050 the UK could produce as much as one-third of its transport energy needs from biomass.’
Proudley says: ‘Current food crops can be used to produce biofuels – mainly wheat, sugar beet and oilseed rape.
‘An increase in crop production for biofuels could have a positive effect on the UK market.
‘The UK annually produces a surplus of wheat, which is exported. An increase in domestic demand for wheat that removes the exportable surplus could be worth approximately £7-£10 per tonne.’
THE NEXT GENERATION
THE introduction of second generation biofuels should ease matters somewhat.
The technology envisaged would see a mixture of advanced biomass-to-liquid (BtL) fuel, synthetic gas-to-liquid (GtL) and coal-to-liquid (CtL) produced, which would have a wider range of sources for production and so reduce the strain on farming.
BtL fuel can be produced from all kinds of solid biomass, including wood, straw and green plants.
As well as a much wider range of purpose-grown crops, including trees, it can also be made from waste products – recycled wood, industrial waste, grass and so on. And crops go a much longer way than in the first generation processes, meaning more fuel per hectare.
The first full-size BtL production facility is expected to be up and running by 2011.
Gas and coal are subjected to a similar process to make a synthesised fuel, known as a synfuel.
DR Wolfgang Steiger, head of powertrain research activities at Volkswagen, says that using second generation fuels in existing vehicles would produce less CO2 because the fuels are purer and produce less waste when burned.
As an example, Steiger says a Volkswagen TDI engine using regular diesel would emit around 155g/km of CO2, whereas the same engine using BtL fuel would emit around 15g/km.
He also believes the improved characteristics of synthetic fuels mean there is scope for new combustion systems that would be more efficient still. There are synergies between diesel and gasoline. The only difference in modern engines is the fuel.’
Steiger said a new fuel is needed to run in a combined combustion system (CCS) engine, something Volkswagen is working on at the moment.
‘CCS combustion is much lower emitting,’ he says.
‘There is no measurable nitrogen oxide (NOx) or carbon emissions and a 5-8% increase in efficiency of the engine.’
CO-OPERATION IS KEY
VOLKSWAGEN is one of a number of firms pushing for joined-up thinking – for such technologies and fuels to become commercially viable, fuel producers, carmakers, customers, politicians and the agricultural industry will need to work together.
Steiger says Volkswagen can produce a CCS engine, but needs a reliable fuel infrastructure for it to be commercially viable. The world needs to focus on the second generation of biofuels as quickly as possible, he believes.
‘If we get the fuel we can solve a lot of our problems,’ he says.
‘The first generation of biofuels is in direct competition with food production. The second generation gets rid of this problem because it brings in a new primary energy base which is not competing directly with food.
‘Monoculture is not enough. It doesn’t make sense to introduce a fuel that uses fossil fuels during its production. We have to reallocate money to the right processes. We need a clear signal in politics that CO2 reduction is the goal and not just the word ‘bio’.’
Malcolm Watson, of the UK Petrol Industry Association, is more guarded about the future of second generation biofuels.
He says: ‘We could get up to 30% of our biofuels from indigenous sources if all the second- generation supplies were used to the maximum. But there are quite a few ‘ifs’ before we get to that. Some of the prices are quite expensive at the moment.
‘There are lots of interesting processes but the problem is proving them at a commercial scale.
‘The fuel companies are getting involved and trying to move things on but the future of biofuels depends on how successful we are.’
Best foot forward
BUYING an economical car and the cheapest fuel is a waste of time if the driver is heavy-footed.
Uneconomical driving can waste a fortune in fuel each year, so it pays to spend some time showing drivers how to push up their mpg figures.