Are biofuels environmentally sound?

Blog post published 15.12.16
Written by one of our bloggers


  • SINTEF


  • SINTEF

We must ensure that all biofuels production is based on traceable, sustainable raw materials, is the message of our bloggers.

The Norwegian government has just agreed that the fraction of biofuels in petrol and diesel is to be raised from 5.5 to 7 percent next year. Within 2020, this fraction should be up to 20 percent. However, can biofuels be considered as a good environmental action?

It is clear that the environmental impact of biofuels and their costs are mainly dependent on the feedstock that is used to produce the fuel.

Most biofuels produced today come from sugar, starch or oil-rich-plants. This covers both plants for food as well as well as plants that are not part of the food chain. Some of today’s biofuels are also produced from waste, such as waste cooking oil, animal fat or the controversial PFAD, which is a by-product from palm oil productionThese production routes are well-established and much of transport fuel of this type is now traded as a product on the global market.

Currently, Norway imports most of its biofuels. This means that if the increase in the quotas is to be realised as a positive environmental action, not only the authorities in Norway, but also in other countries must also ensure that all biofuels production is based on traceable, sustainable raw materials.

Should not compete with food production

There are small amounts of the so-called “second generation” or “advanced” biofuels available in Norway – for example, Borregaard produces small amounts of bioethanol in Sarpsborg. Second generation biofuels are produced from lignocellulosic biomass feedstock, a raw material that is not in conflict with food production. This resource covers all biomass materials, from the timber to residues and waste fractions. However, for the production of biofuels, the most relevant fractions are waste and by-products. An example is forestry residues from the felling and processing of trees – these are not utilised today. Forestry residues are very interesting feedstock for Norwegian biofuels production. The technologies that are used to produce second generation biofuels are currently costly, so it is important that the feedstock has the lowest price. These production technologies are not commercially available today, and thus need relatively significant support to bring these fuels to the market – either in the form of investment and operational support, access to risk capital and/or research. Advanced biofuels contribute to a better environmental balance sheet as well as improving the local economy and security of supply. Biofuels alone cannot ensure a future without fossil oil-based routes, but can be an important part of the future green economy and energy system. Therefore, it is important to support sustainable production, both at home and globally.

Are biofuels expensive?

Many people question whether the government’s decision has an effect on the fuel price at the pump? Current biofuels are more expensive than petroleum-based fuels, but biofuels are exempt from CO2 tax and still comprise a relatively small amount of the traded fuels – the expected increase in the oil price, is more likely to have a bigger impact. Looking to the future; it is possible that increased demand will result in increased price as well as increased risk of unsustainable production. The price of today’s second generation biofuels is quite high, which is not unexpected due to the low production volumes. Experience from, for example, solar cell technology shows that the price can be reduced with increased production volumes. Historical development of fossil-based resources also shows that the integration of biofuels production with the production of other value products – such as in a biorefinery concept – will have an impact on the price. If we are to increase the volume of traded biofuels and establish sustainable future use, then this needs to be realised primarily by second generation routes.

What is the quality of biofuels

Many people are worried about the impact of biofuels on their car. The limitations of the current biofuels are well known and the car suppliers provide guarantees up to a specified level of biofuels content. Biofuels with the same quality as current fossil-based fuels can in fact be produced with today’s technology for a slightly higher price than the cheapest biofuel types.

An example is HVO diesel, which is just as good quality, or even better than fossil diesel. It is even feasible to produce biofuels with the specs for aviation and this has been used at Gardermoen with great success. At this time, the aviation biofuel is based on waste cooking oil, which has a limited production volume.

What is happening in Norway?

In Norway, we have feedstock that is suitable for production of second generation biofuels. In addition, it is possible to realise sustainable production with a positive environmental impact. There are several Norwegian initiatives known today and the general interest in this area is quite high.

We have a good deal of raw material that can be converted to biofuels – it is estimated that even if extraction of biomass remains the same level, at least 7 TWh of today’s unexploited biomass can be converted to fuels. If the amount of usage increases, within sustainability limits, the potential of biofuels production can increase up to 16 TWh. This is equivalent to 320 and 720 million litres diesel.

In addition, Norway has a lot of expertise, both with respect to extraction, transport and use of biomass to produce products based on our logging and paper industry. We also have a lot of knowledge and experience in refinery, petroleum and chemical processes, which is a great advantage for conversion processes. In addition to this industrial basis, Norway has several research groups that, together cover the whole spectra of competence from academic to applied research. As an important part of the drive to establish second generation biofuels, this research competence will be gathered in the new national Research Centre for environmentally friendly energy for biofuels – Bio4Fuels. The Centre will be established from January 2017 and be led by SINTEF together with the host institute NMBU. With over 40 involved stakeholders, Bio4Fuels will act as an important arena and contribute to the development of cost effective and sustainable processes in a national and Nordic perspective.

Norway is thus well placed to become a producer and technology deliverer within the future green energy system.

What can SINTEF offer?

SINTEF can aid industry to establish itself as biofuels producers. At SINTEF, we are looking at all the most important production methods for biofuels – either through processes that involve thermal treatment, or through biochemical processes. In addition, SINTEF is also working on converting biomass to higher value products for integration into a future “biorefinery”.

We have a brand new experimental unit at Blaklia in Trondheim, which is part of NorBioLab, a national infrastructure supported by the Research Council of Norway and led by PFI. We will use this new experimental facility to test a variety of raw materials and their feasibility for biofuels production. The reactor is a downscaled version of a coal gasifier reactor. It is possible to produce fuels through coal gasification today, but it is not climate friendly. However, if coal is replaced by biomass, it is a completely different climate-equation. It is, however, not simple to achieve since the properties and access to coal compared to biomass is quite different. We intend to use of our knowledge and expertise to make this work. We are also looking at converting biomass that has a relatively high water content, without the need to dry. To achieve this, it is necessary to make use of methods that emulate the process that was the source of oil and gas fossil resources. Oil and gas was formed at high pressures over millions of years. The process used today also involves high pressures and high temperatures, but we do not have the luxury of millions of years, just minutes. This means that we do not achieve the same quality of product as fossil-based oil, so it needs to be upgraded. We also have experience from looking at different conversion processes and the effect of different raw materials and reaction conditions on the final product quality.

Other parts of SINTEF work with other conversion routes: Biochemical processes using fermentation methods to produce “bio-alcohols” in addition to diverse biochemicals. As an alternative, we are also working on catalytic processes that focus on conversion of biomass to high quality biofuels. In addition to development of biofuels production for integration with Norwegian forestry industry, SINTEF is also working on more long-term activities on sustainable utilisation of marine biomass through cultivation and conversion of seaweeds to different products.

Read more on SINTEF’s competences within bioenergy.