Can biofuels still be the magical solution to our energy problems? Thousands of scientists will admit that biofuels are no longer a new concept (in fact, it is a very old idea). From the ‘first generation’ ethanol to the ‘second generation lignocellulosic’ biofuels and the latest algae-based biofuels, scientists and researchers are trying their best to find the best biofuels solutions. But with controversy shrouding if they’re actually sustainable means that biofuels are still debated hotly.
Opposition to biofuels mainly revolves around concerns that are mainly related to the sustainability aspects of their development and manufacturing. The main sustainability issues of biofuels are greenhouse gas emissions, excessive usage of land, water and fertilizer resources during production process; and the high production costs and a primary barrier to entry. However, with the technological advancements and improving policies of governments and international standards, the future directions for biofuels are still quite bright.
The technological advancement of second-generation lignocellulosic biofuels, mainly on the latest algae-based biofuels, has been developing rapidly in recent years. We should no longer judge the potential of biofuels development based on our previous perception on the conventional first-generation biofuels because the latest lignocellulosic biofuels are able to addressed different problems aroused from the production process of traditional first-generation biofuels.
Most liquid biofuels have 20 to 80% less life cycle CO2eq emissions (gram of CO2 emitted per kWh of power generated) than conventional fossil fuels. Second generation technologies can even deliver lower emissions than first generation processes over their life cycle by using by-products to power the biomass-to-liquid conversion process. For example, leftover plant fibers would be used in an onsite combined heat and power (CHP) plant to generate the heat and electricity needed to convert the biomass to liquid, either via gasification or chemical conversion.
Since second-generation feedstock requires much lower energy inputs, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides, emissions from the field during cultivation are lower. They are also higher yielding per hectare than food crops because the whole plant is used. In addition, it is widely reported that the newly developed algae-based biofuels have advantages over first-generation biofuel crops, including higher yields, faster growth and lower requirements for land. Significant investments have been made in the development of algal biofuels, particularly within the energy and aviation sectors (examples include Airbus, ExxonMobil and the US Navy). It is believed that by making use of advanced technologies such as genetic modification technology, more efficient biofuels will be developed in the future.
From the report ‘Biofuels: ethical issues’, Nuffield Council on Bioethics suggests some key principles on setting biofuels policies in order to deal with the issues regarding sustainability. One highlight of the principles is: biofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights (including access to sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights and land entitlements). The development of algae-based lignocelluosic biofuels definitely matches the above principle. Unlike corn/sugarcane ethanol, algae-based fuels do not compete for land use or food sources because the cultivation of algae can be done in photobioreactor and from sewage and wastewater.
An even more amazing concept is the carbon capturing technology during the cultivation process of algae. Algae live on a high concentration of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. These pollutants are released by automobiles, cement plants, breweries, fertilizer plants, and steel plants. Therefore, these pollutants can serve as nutrients for the algae. The algae production facilities can thus be fed with the exhaust gases from these plants to significantly increase the algal productivity and clean up the air.
Along with the above technological advancements, policies of governments and international standards will also push the potential of biofuels development even further. The current frameworks of biofuels policies of most governments focus on increasing biofuel’s usage and production. However, it is more important to develop policies to reduce greenhouse gas emission of biofuels, instead of meeting national production and consumption targets. Different reports suggest that direct economic and regulatory incentives should be provided to encourage the technological developments of the biofuel supply chain instead of the production of biofuels. Policy instruments such as carbon pricing on suppliers, tax incentives or marketable ‘obligations’ to develop new and right technologies and environmental standards and regulations should also be introduced.
Policies are also very crucial for other issues such as excessive resources usage and fair trade. As a result, different scientists and groups such as Nuffield Council on Bioethics gave out different guidelines on the ethics of developing biofuels. From the report ‘Biofuels: ethical issues’, the council suggests some key principles on setting biofuels policies in order to deal with the issues mentioned above. If the governments strictly follow these principles and guidelines to set up their policies, developing biofuels will become more sustainable and social responsible.
It is essential to develop biofuels because biofuels should not be seen as a viable source for electric production. Rather, they are more a replacement for petrol/gas for transportation. For example, Lufthansa and Finnair have been recently running some test flights in Europe using a hybrid mix of biodiesel and aviation fuel. It is believed that the applicability in aviation and marine will be enormous.
The development of biofuels is under progress and commercialization of second-generation biofuels and algae-based biofuels are taking off. Theoretically, second-generation biofuels and algae-based biofuels will definitely be a very effective solution to our energy problem, especially on transportation. Therefore, it is still very important to keep putting resources on the correct research and technological development for biofuels. With good regulations and policies, the development of biofuels will be more sustainable since the resources are going to the right projects and developments are in the right direction. Hopefully biofuels can become a sustainable source of green energy for land, aviation and marine transportation.
As always with hot stories, there are two different sides to them. If you are interested in the other side of this story, read this blog by Fabian Aellig.