Opportunity for grain-based biofuels growing in Europe.
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In the past couple of decades Europe has embraced the diesel car with enthusiasm, but now the pollution problems its particulate emissions create in cities are increasing and legislators are starting to impose controls. It’s a fantastic opportunity for sustainable biofuels and, together with the potential to produce raw materials for the chemical industry, this means a potentially bright future for grain-based products.

Dr. Jeremy Tomkinson, chief executive officer (CEO) of the U.K.’s National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC), explained to World Grain how the trend in transport fuel is shifting and the effect it is likely to have on the markets.

Since the emissions scandal and the news about inner city pollution, diesel car sales have been slowly dropping with petrol, petrol hybrids and direct plug-ins picking up the slack at quite a rate, he said. This provides some big potential advantages for farmers and biofuel producers as petrol requires bioethanol to be blended to help to lower tailpipe emissions.

However, the British government needs to make some big decisions this year about the types and amounts of biofuels it wants over the next 15 years.

“The RTFO, (the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, the policy which controls the types and amount of biofuel blended with fossil fuels in the U.K.) has been in force since 2008, and it is now up for amendment to cover the period up to 2030,” Tomkinson said. “It’s the biggest thing that’s happened to biofuels since biofuels started. The government started the U.K. biofuels policy in 2008 with lots of enthusiasm and almost immediately put the brakes on their development because of a new theory called Indirect Land Use Change, or ILUC.

“The ILUC model assumes that every parcel of land taken out of production requires the same area of land must be bought into production elsewhere, and it will always be on the cheapest, most marginal land that always tends to be in the most environmentally sensitive areas. We know certain biofuels, or more correctly certain feedstocks of biofuels, those coming from tropical forested areas, primarily palm oil, can have some pretty disastrous environmental effects.”

Palm oil as a material is actually fine, he said, but if the crop has come from a cleared rainforest or drained wetland areas, then huge volumes of methane are released, which is a massive problem as methane is 23 times more potent than CO26.

“However, ILUC theory says that if a developer uses any form of vegetable oil-based feedstock, then it amounts to using palm oil — with the same environmental effects, even if it is U.K. rapeseed.

“A large number of scientists are skeptical about ILUC as the concept cannot be proven retrospectively. For example, if ILUC predicted certain effects would happen after a particular policy had taken effect change then in the fullness of time, we should be able to see if these effects had indeed arisen. But the problem is that one can’t ever see indirect effect happening, only the direct effects, so it’s a model that can never be proven in the real world. As a scientist I find accepting unverifiable data very difficult.”

||| Next page: Ethanol from feed wheat  |||

Ethanol from feed wheat

Due to the position on ILUC, the British government has concluded that first-generation fuels based on food must be somehow inherently unsustainable. This becomes a difficult argument to substantiate when one considers ethanol from feed wheat, which is a sustainable process.

“Farmers use feed wheat primarily to feed protein to their animals,” Tomkinson said. “Think of the grain as just a packet containing starch, protein and other important sugars, minerals and fibers. What the bioethanol process does is to convert the starch in the grain to ethanol and leave the protein and fiber behind, so it actually provides farmers with a protein-rich meal that they can use at far higher protein concentrations than that found naturally, which means they don’t then have to give them twice the amount of grain they actually need to get the optimal amount of protein.

“The government, the European Commission and, in fact, most NGO’s now agree that wheat-based ethanol can provide sustainability benefits due to the animal feed products the process provides, but they still want to treat it in much the same way as the tropical oils as it provides a simple message that it all comes from food, even though the process actually provides a more protein-rich feed than was available originally.”

In order to prevent the widespread use of first-generation fuels, the commission is now requesting E.U. member states apply a crop cap to their biofuel supply, which will limit the amount of fuel derived directly from crops. The commission suggested a 7% crop cap, e.g. 70% of the initial target, but the U.K. government is seriously looking at much lower values. The recent U.K. RTFO consultation provided crop cap numbers of 0%, 2% and 7% with the government preferring the 2% option, which would be disastrous for the industry and U.K. farming in general.

“This is a perfect example of the government tying themselves in knots,” Tomkinson said. “The U.K. has its own carbon budgets to achieve — quite separate to those provided by the E.U. — and its own analysis has shown that without at least 10% ethanol blended in gasoline, the country will not achieve these targets. All it requires is for the government to say we now require blending at 10% and all the blenders would comply. This can be achieved with strong government leadership; only time will tell if we get the leadership we need.”

||| Next page: Seeking decarbonization solutions  |||

Seeking decarbonization solutions

Aside from ethanol, the current U.K. transport problem is how to decarbonize aviation, HGV’s and remove much of the pollutants found in inner cities, which it has had little success in so far, he said.

“The most logical would be to use fuels like biomethane from Anaerobic Digestion and landfill, which can be used in trucks as a diesel replacement and hydrogen, which can also be used to displace fossil methane and perhaps most importantly biofuels that directly displace mid-distillates, the fuels we use in diesel trucks and aviation,” he said. “These types of bio-mid-distillate fuel contain no aromatics, which are the main cause of inner city particulates.

“However, we do not have the infrastructure in place now to deliver many of the new gas-based fuels, although we should not use this as a reason not to move it forward. We need to roll out a number of potential solutions and let the market decide which one it will pick up. Yes, many of these will need government stimulus as they won’t be able to compete directly with petro fuels until they attain a certain size.”

In order to understand the issues, Tomkinson said the inner city problem must be broken down into two discreet areas — trucks and vans on one hand and cars on the other.

“The current government strategy is to replace as many of the domestic car fleet with electric cars as soon as possible (even those not in inner cities),” he explained. “Overall, it’s not too bad an idea but it needs a huge increase in renewable electricity before it can be rolled out successfully as running cars on the electricity grid now is not much better than running them on oil. We are already seeing a downward trend in diesel car sales with far more petrol hybrids and full plug ins being sold, which is a response to concerns over particulate emissions. If this trend continues, it means that car makers are likely to scale back investment in polluting diesel engines.”

Aviation and trucks, on the other hand, are difficult to electrify.

“It’s widely recognized that we will need some form of liquid fuel solution for both these applications for some time to come,” he said. “Technologies are becoming available that can supply chemically identical fuels to those we use now but from a 100% bio source. However, they are expensive and will need quite a bit of government support to develop.”

He predicted a big move from diesel cars to petrol electric hybrids.

“An increase in petrol will require an increase in ethanol production and as it’s unlikely any new first-generation ethanol plants will be built due to the government and commissions’ negative stance toward food-based fuels,” he said. “This means advanced processing might now get a route to commercialize.”

Advanced processing uses biomass like straw and waste to extract fermentable sugars similar to those found in food products.

“These cannot displace food from the supply chains, and as long as they are sourced sustainably, using rules we have developed, then this should be as close to a circular process as possible,” he said. “These non-food sugars can be fermented in exactly the same way as traditional fermentation but now producing ethanol that is non-food based. This also provides us with a route to the far higher value markets of chemicals and materials.

“The potential is quite large for the integration of these large-scale fuel plants with chemicals production as the fuels provide the economy of scale (seen in the petro industry) to co-produce high added-value materials alongside the fuels cost effectively. Ethanol itself can be converted easily into a chemical called ethylene, the precursor to polyethylene which is currently affording a 30% increase in price in South America simply because it’s green.”