The Future of Biofuels

By Robert Potts

First-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol have well-known shortcomings. A a global water crisis looms and corn is a water-intensive crop. As food prices rise globally, corn ethanol diverts food a food crop to fuel use. Add  deforestation and large-scale changes in land use and corn ethanol seems to be a poor substitute for fossil fuels. 

Some see “second-generation” biofuels as the future of the biofuels industry. Second-generation biofuels are synthesized from crop waste or fast-growing grasses rather than derived from human food sources. This improves the efficiency of the agricultural industry by removing waste. And it doesn’t affect food prices.

The production of second-generation biofuels requires complex and costly thermochemical processes such as gasification, pyrolysis and torrefaction. The average cost of cellulosic biofuels is around 40 per cent greater than the cost of corn-based ethanol.

But costs are falling. A new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that cellulosic biofuels will achieve cost parity with ethanol by 2016. Improved technology is lowering costs. For example, the cost of enzymes, one of the key cost components, has fallen by 72 per cent in the last four years. Analysts believe that if the industry attracts more capital productive capacity will grow and the relative costs of production will fall further.

Critics continue to argue that sourcing biofuels from non-food crops will cause large-scale land use change and increased water usage. The difficulty is that the volume of fuel created from biofuel production, or the “net energy yield per hectare of land,” is not sufficient to supply our economy in the long-term without creating further environmental impacts.

Some maintain that sugarcane ethanol, the biofuel widely produced in Brazil, would solve this issue. However, its wider proliferation is currently constrained by U.S. agricultural policy which mainly favors corn and by Europe’s climate, which does not support sugarcane production there. Its status as a popular crop also limits its long-term sustainability.

One area of biofuel production that might sustain the industry in the long-term is “third-generation” biofuels sourced from algae and bacteria. These fuels are still in the early stages of development and allow the modification of species of algae to produce yields of long-chain fatty acids. Should technology emerge to allow scientists to generate large volumes of fuel from these sources, they may be able to negate the problems encountered so far. In the meantime, first- and second-generation biofuels will continue to play a role in a world-wide energy industry that is highly dependent on a variety of sources of fuel.

Do you think biofuels are a sustainable form of fuel? Are you concerned about the long-term depletion of fossil fuels? Will new technology continue to support our energy usage? Let us know what you think, below, or via twitter @dschatsky


Robert Potts is the owner of RPM Fuels & Oil Pumps, suppliers of tanks and fuel transfer pump equipment to the fuel industry and RPM Fuels, supplier of a range of oil tanks and specialist equipment for biofuels and biodiesel.

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