Biofuels Industry

In broad terms there are three main driving forces for the development of biofuels:

  • The world’s reserves of crude fossil fuels are finite
  • National energy security as demand starts to exceed ability to supply
  • Onset of climate change

Following Professor Gallagher’s Review into the sustainability of biofuels during the course of 2008, and the Renewable Energy Directive which commits the European Union to achieve a legally binding target of 20% renewable energy by 2020 and a sub target to achieve a minimum 10% renewable energy in transport by 2020. Interest is increasing in developing methods and technology for utilising biomass (timbers) and wastes. The North East of England has seen significant levels of investment activity in recent years in the fields of biofuels and biomass. This has been driven by the co-location of large-scale petrochemical industry and an extensive agricultural hinterland. Biofuels Corporation started up their 250,000 tonne/year biodiesel plant in February 2006 and Ensus Group will be starting up a 350,000 tonne/year bioethanol plant mid 2009 which will be the biggest in Europe. Sembcorp opened their 30 MW biomass power plant in October 2007. MGT have announced a new biomass power plant which will be on a scale 10 times larger. Discussions are advancing for a 500,000 tonne per year oilseed crusher plant in North East England to link the agricultural and industrial biodiesel supply chains. This is a very sizeable level of activity in both a UK and European context.

How much Biofuel can be produced?

The answers depend on how much land is available, the yield available from that land, and the range of differing feed stocks utilised. The starting point is that biofuels consume around 1% of the worlds arable crops today (OECD/FAO, 2007). Many estimates have been made of the proportion of the worlds transport fuel production that could be replaced with biofuels. These estimates often use different assumptions and generally assume no improvements in crop yields and no advancement in production technology. Across the world, 45 million hectares of land has been taken out of production since the 1990’s including 7 million hectares in Europe under the set-aside scheme. It is estimated that by 2040 the availability of arable land in the European Union for non-food crops will be 33 million hectares - sufficient to supply 11% of today’s transport fuel consumption based on current technology.

From an agricultural perspective, biofuels offer farmers an additional market opportunity allowing growth in crops in which the region can lead the world, such as high starch wheat and rapeseed. An additional benefit for growers is that the biofuel market can use grain and oilseed which has resulted from poor growing conditions, when it would otherwise be rejected by the food industry.

Emissions and by products

The case for biofuels being close to carbon neutral is based on the fact the crops from which they are made consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during growth, this is then released again when the biofuels is used in a vehicle. Measurement of emissions or greenhouse gas (ghg) savings associated with biofuel can differ dependent upon the method of calculation and also which feedstock is used. There are energy inputs (fertiliser manufacture, crop harvesting and transportation, biomass processing etc) but manufacturing biofuel from wheat grain for example results in the production of a co-product animal feed - Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles (DDGS). The European Union imports significant volumes of animal feed protein from other parts of the world because it is only approximately 20% self sufficient in protein. This is due in a large part to the high meat content in the European diet. Increasing production of animal feed from UK biofuel production will decrease our dependency on imported products, some of which is soy based which could have sustainability issues dependent upon where it is grown. Consequently, the production of biofuels in Europe (if co-products are used in the right way) will take pressure off land in developing countries. These co-products could also potentially be used as a fuel. There is not yet an international consensus on the most appropriate method of ghg calculation.

Technology Development

There are a number of areas from which there is potential for new technology to improve the environmental footprint. NEPIC together with NEB have created a grower network aimed at increasing crop yield and overall grain and oil content for local growers. Increasingly the biofuels industry talks about using the whole crop and making beneficial use of all the by-products from the production process. Looking at the wheat bioethanol chain, for example, the wheat straw is useful biomass which can be used to produce heat and power or as an animal feed. Glycerol ex biodiesel manufacture has many uses. Pyrolysing the biomass (or heating biomass in the absence of air) produces a charcoal like material called bio-char which can be crushed and dug into the soil to improve soil fertility, reduce nitrous oxide emissions and assist with water retention whilst keeping the carbon long term within the soil because the bio-char is largely resistant to decomposition.

The Pyrolysis Challenge

NEB are a partner prganisation in the bid led by the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in the Pyrolysis Challenge.

Integrated Biomass To Syngas (IBS) Project

An alternative is biomass gasification (see briefing note) to produce a synthesis gas as a feedstock into advanced thermo chemical biofuel plants from which a range of fuels could be manufactured - diesel, alcohols or jet fuel. NEPIC and NEB are actively involved in helping develop these technologies.

Opportunities for the UK and North East England

We are convinced that North East England will create the opportunities necessary for the region to meet its vision and stimulate a dynamic local market and continue to attract investment based on the latest biofuel technology. NEPIC is now seeking to undertake work on fuel additives to improve fuel economy and emissions, increase uptake of high blends in the region and build the case for a large biorefinery in North East England.

Northeast Biofuels, c/o NEPIC, Room H224, Wilton Centre, Wilton, Redcar, TS10 4RF T +44 (0) 870 013 0629 | F +44 (0) 1642 442 561