Grow and go

It isn’t just carbon-belching coal-fired power stations that are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. With 27 per cent of total output, the electricity industry is undeniably the UK’s largest source of CO2 emissions, but at 25 per cent the transport industry comes a very close second.

One solution to these burgeoning transport emissions is to move from fossil fuel-based transport fuels, such as petrol and diesel, to biofuels. These are produced from plant materials or other forms of biomass, and, in principle, reduce net emissions because the fuel crop absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere while it is growing. Biofuels are widely used in many countries – generally in the form of bioethanol or biodiesel.

It now looks as if ‘biofuel fever’ has reached the UK. Late last year, transport secretary Alastair Darling revealed his Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) proposing that 5 per cent of all UK fuel sold on UK forecourts should come from a renewable source by 2010, representing a twenty-fold increase over today’s sales. The RTFO has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by one million tonnes, representing  2 per cent to 3 per cent of transport emissions, equivalent to taking one million cars off the road.

The government has also been providing a 20p per litre duty incentive on biofuels since 2002, which offsets the additional costs of biofuels. Figures suggest this handout stimulated sales of around 10 million litres a month in summer 2005 – around 0.25 per cent of all road fuel sales.

A modest start

UK production of biofuel vehicles is embryonic, but it has begun. Both SAAB and Ford recently launched flex-fuel cars that can run on anything from 100 per cent petrol-ethanol blends of up to 85 per cent (E85). Since August of last year, Ford has sold 100 of its Focus flex-fuel cars, predominantly in and around Somerset, the UK hub for biofuel activity.

“We wish to see more biofuels being used as part of an integrated approach to CO2. Using a higher percentage of ethanol in fuels is a good way of getting more ethanol into vehicles, which is where the Focus flex-fuel vehicle comes in,” says Dr John Bennett, technical specialist of fuels and lubricants at Ford's Dunton Technical Centre in the UK.

According to Bennett, in terms of engineering, the flex-fuel Focus is not hugely different to a petrol-fuelled version. “Fuel lines need to be wider, metals need to be hardened and the engine management system needs to be adjusted to detect whether there’s petrol or an ethanol mix in the tank,” he explains. “However, if you lift the bonnet on the flex-fuel Focus I defy you to spot the differences.”

On performance, Bennett is adamant that the difference between the two versions is minimal. High oil prices and the UK subsidy mean biofuel costs are now on a par with the price of petrol and diesel. Even the price of the flex-fuel car is comparable with the standard version.

But if performance and cost are so similar, why aren’t garage forecourts flooded with these vehicles? Right now Ford only aims to sell some 300 within three years, nowhere near the numbers hitting the US highways.

According to Bennett, the UK is in a “chicken and egg situation” with bioethanol-fuelled vehicles. While a 5 per cent ethanol: 95 per cent petrol blend – suited to all cars – is already infiltrating supermarket forecourts, using existing fuel pumps, the sum total of the specialist pumps required to deliver E85 bioethanol is still in single figures.

This is not a problem for the flex-fuel Focus, which also runs off petrol, but the situation won’t inspire drivers keen to use more biofuel. As Bennett puts it: “We want to see more ethanol on the road, but we also have a duty to the 150 million cars already in Europe engineered to take only 5 per cent ethanol.”

He also believes that if biofuels are to be adopted sooner rather than later in the UK, then the government needs to do more than merely enforce the RTFO. In Sweden more than 15,000 flex-fuel Focus cars have been sold to date, with 2004 sales running at 80 per cent of all Focus sales. Bennett has no doubt that government incentives have been a key factor in helping to create this state of affairs. “Here [in Sweden] the government has provided a raft of measures. In Stockholm, these vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge, they get reduced parking costs, and a reduction in vehicle duty. There’s also no shift in running costs; it’s this package that makes it work.”

But, while UK car manufacturers look for incentives to accelerate the uptake of biofuel vehicles, we should stop and ask one fundamental question. Is switching from fossil fuels to biofuels the best way to tackle carbon dioxide emissions from road transport?

Is green clean?

Biofuel critics cite two key reasons not to produce and use the fuel. First, they argue, a lifecycle analysis that looks at the greenhouse gas levels emitted along the biofuel production chain reveals that, at best, there is no reduction in CO2 emissions relative to petrol and diesel production. Worse, emissions levels will actually rise.

Second, they say, turning over land to biofuel crops spells economic and environmental disaster. Not only will we run out of food, but cutting down swathes of forest that acts as carbon sinks will exacerbate climate change. These are extreme views, but is there an element of truth?

The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP), a consortium of parties from the automotive and fuel industries, has calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of bioethanol from wheat. Results revealed a reduction of 7 per cent to 77 per cent depending on the ‘production pathway’.

This wide spread of overall emission levels reflects the influence of the various energy sources used in the production of the biofuel. “The big emission hits are, say, if you use coal to provide the heat and energy inputs in the ethanol production plant,” explains Dr Jeremy Woods, research fellow in energy policy at Imperial College London, “but if you use the straw coming off the fields and make use of co-products to provide the energy in your plant, you will get the substantial emissions reductions.”

But what about fears over land shortages and unsustainable crop growth accelerating climate change? In simple terms, one hectare of wheat will drive one car around the world, but will this leave us with enough land to eat? According to Woods, the UK currently exports around three million tonnes of wheat a year. However, these exports could be used to make a 5 per cent volumetric bioethanol/petrol blend that would meet the UK government’s 2010 renewable fuels target.

But, while the UK should not run out of land for biofuel crop growth by 2010, setting aside land in the longer-term could become more of an issue. As Woods points out satisfying the 2010 biofuels target without using exports would require around 1.5m hectares of land, around one third of the current arable area under cropping in the UK.

Woods believes, however, that a combination of imports and new technology could bypass potential land shortage problems. “In my view, local producers will continue [to produce biofuel crops], but probably won’t produce more than the 5 per cent target, the rest will come from imports,” he says. “We’re part of an international energy agency task force – even Brazil imports ethanol.”

The road ahead

While today’s biofuels are mainly derived from food crops such as wheat and oil seed rape using well-established fermentation and distillation techniques, a second generation of biofuels could emerge post-2020. Here, lower value feed-stocks from straw to organic waste materials would be converted to fuels via advanced process technologies currently under development.

One favourite is lignocellulosic processing, involving the breakdown of organic materials into ethanol using enzymes. “With lignocellulosics you get 2.5-5t of ethanol per hectare compared to 2.25-2.5t from wheat, so you can see the potential gains,” explains Woods.

Mike Branch, chief engineer at UK bioethanol business Green Spirit Fuels, is equally confident about the future of biofuels. His company is building the UK’s first grain bioethanol plant in Somerset. From 2007, the plant will convert 340,000t of wheat into 131 million litres of bioethanol each year.

Unlike Woods however, Branch is confident that the UK already has sufficient arable land set aside to produce enough ethanol for biofuels to contribute up to 10 per cent of the UK’s fuel needs, without turning to imports. According to Branch, some farmers have untended land as there hasn’t been enough reason to grow a crop on it.

So while the short-term future of UK biofuels looks bright, the story beyond 2010 remains somewhat murkier. One significant sector ready to point out the looming challenges is the petroleum industry.

Nick Vandervell, communications director of the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA), is sceptical that biofuels should provide more than 10 per cent of UK transport fuels. And there’s more to his argument than land use. As he puts it, the UK is awash with petrol and demand has been dropping since 1990, adding ethanol to the mix will only exacerbate this problem.

The UKPIA firmly believes “biofuels can play a part in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from road transport”, but asserts that UK biomass is a limited resource and would be best used in power generation. “We’re saying that if you are looking for a carbon dioxide reduction, then converting biomass to liquid fuels might not be the best route,” adds Vandervell.

He could have a point. A recent study from Dutch research organisation CE Delft concludes that the use of biomass for power generation is more cost-effective than biofuels in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at least until 2020. But look a little closer and you notice the study was commissioned by Netherlands Petroleum Industry Association.

So can anyone honestly say biofuels will be crucial to stemming greenhouse gas emissions from transport? For now, the jury is out but as Jeremy Woods of Imperial College says: “It’s very difficult to see how we can impact transport emissions in the short- to medium-term without biofuels.” 

A global phenomenon

Biofuels are used extensively around the world. In Brazil, for example, following a 30-year drive to boost energy security, roughly half of the nation’s sugar cane crop is converted to bioethanol. In 2003, 3.2 billion gallons of ethanol were produced, and was used to fuel four million vehicles running on pure ethanol and serving as an additive to petrol. Brazil is still the world’s eighth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but its transport sector contributes very little to the national carbon count.

Biofuel use is also relatively common in Sweden, Germany and the US, where General Motors, Ford and Chrysler already produces biofuel vehicles on a significant scale. With a formidable line-up of Chevies, trucks and sports utility vehicles, GM claims to have more than 1.5 million ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles on the road today, capable of running on either petrol or a blend of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol (gasoline in the US) known as E85. Ford has a similar number of bioethanol-driven vehicles on US roads, while Chrysler is upping its range of E85-fuelled vehicles from three to five this year.

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