Biofuel, a solution during the energy transition
On a global scale more and more deals are made to limit global warming under the influence of CO₂ emission. This was the leading theme during the 2015 climate conference in Paris. The 194 countries present agreed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO₂ by 50% in 2030, in comparison to the emission in 2010. By 2050 a reduction of 80% should be realized. The demand for energy, however, continues to increase. In 2040 an increase of 40% is expected compared to 2018.
Nowadays more than 90% of our energy is obtained through the burning of fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and coal, which emits high amounts of CO₂. The burning of coal alone is responsible for 41% of the global CO₂ emission. In addition, the available amount of fossil fuel decreases. The obtaining of oil is becoming relatively more expensive, as most of the easily obtainable oil has already been used up. To meet both the growing demand for fuel and the goal to use sustainable energy sources as often as possible instead, attention is shifting towards biofuels.
What is biofuel?
Within the European Union it was agreed upon that in 2020 at least 10% of all fuels in transport should be alternative fuels, such as biofuels. When biofuels are produced out of organic waste they are circular in nature and contribute to reaching the climate goals.
Biofuel is a collective term for al fuels obtained from organic sources. This can be of both animal and plant based origin, which will be converted into a synthetic fuel such as diesel. These biofuels can be used in regular combustion engines, which allows them to serve as alternative fuels for transport. A small part of fuels that are used in cars now already consists of biofuels. The producer of fuels can choose from a large variety of biofuels with each their own properties and specifications.
Two well-known biofuels are FAME and HVO. These fuels both have their benefits and disadvantages. When blending a biofuel with regular fuel for the consumer market, most manufacturers opt for FAME. FAME is cheaper to produce than HVO, but since this fuel attracts water it stimulates the growth of algae, which pollutes the engine. HVO is generally purer and of higher quality than FAME. The percentage of biofuels mixed into regular fuels increases every year. At the moment fuels for cars consist of at least 5% biofuel. The default fuel used for this is FAME.
Bredenoord only uses HVO in order to offer the highest quality and prevent the growth of algae in engines.
Production of biofuel
With the correct treatment a variety of crops can be converted into biofuel. Oil palm, rapeseed, grain, sugar cane, soy and corn are highly suitable for this. When pressing fatty crops the oils and fats inside are released, which can be processed into biodiesel. Through fermentation bioethanol can be obtained from crops with a high sugar content. Lastly, methane is released when bacteria break down certain components in manure and waste. This can then be pressed together into biogas. Most of these production methods, however, are at the expense of food production, since the ground used to produce these crops could also have been used to farm crops intended for consumption.
With biofuel the distinction is made between first and second generation. First generation biofuels are made of crops grown specifically for this purpose. Often these are grown in tropical countries, on soil that could have been used to grow food. Rainforests are often burnt down to meet the high demand for farming grounds. Not only does this release the CO₂ stored within the trees, this can also have negative consequences for the biodiversity within this region.
Using agricultural land for growing crops for biofuel production results in a lower availability of agricultural land for growing food. The shortage that this causes will result in higher food prices, possibly leading to hunger. Within the European Union this downside of biofuels is taken into consideration, and as such crops for biofuels may not be produced in regions with high biodiversity and destroying rainforests, primeval forests and peatlands is not permitted.
Second generation biofuels are obtained from waste, such as frying oil, vegetable waste, algae or waste of animal feed. Second generation biofuel not only reduces CO₂ emission, but also contributes in moving towards a circular economy.
Bredenoord is of the opinion that with first generation biofuels the CO₂ reduction does not weigh up to the negative consequences and therefore only uses HVO obtained from waste material.
Measuring sustainability using the well-to-wheel approach
When determining the sustainability of a fuel the well-to-wheel approach can be helpful. This approach considers the emission from burning the fuel and the emission at any point during the development of the fuel and the transport of the fuel to its user. The European Commission uses this approach and determined in 2012 that from well to wheel the emission of biofuels should be 35% lower than the emission of fossil fuels. In 2018 an emission lower than 60% of fossil fuel emission should be achieved.
Benefits of biofuels
The most obvious benefit of biofuels is that they can replace fossil fuels in many existing engines. Unlike fossil fuels, the resources for biofuels can be produced infinitely through the use of waste. In addition biofuels are practically CO₂ neutral. The CO₂ emitted while burning plant fuel has previously been taken in from the atmosphere.
Because second generation biofuels are obtained from waste they are considerably more sustainable. It is important that none of these fuels damage the environment and that they can be processed by a regular combustion engine. Some fuels, like the synthetic diesel HVO, have been accepted as suitable fuel by most manufacturers of engines.
Disadvantages of biofuels
There’s a downside to biofuels as well. For example, HVO is currently more expensive than fossil fuel, although FAME is cheaper. In addition there will still be local CO₂ emission when burning the fuel. This emission is compensated by the fact that it was previously taken in from the atmosphere by the raw materials, but that will not prevent the local emission of fine particulates.
First generation biofuels come with various risks, such as local hunger, the disappearance of primeval forests and endngering biodiversity. In the European Union laws were set in place to forbid destroying nature and endangering biodiversity.
Further solution to this could be to outsource the farming of crops for biofuels to western countries with an abundance of wasteland that otherwise would not be used for agriculture. A more easy solution would be to opt for second generation biofuels whenever possible, using only waste of animal or plant based origin.