Types of Biofuels: Ethanol, Biodiesel, Biobutanol
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Types of Biofuels—Ethanol, Biodiesel, Biobutanol—and the Companies Making Them
Ethanol is essentially pure alcohol—the same stuff that gets you into trouble on Saturday nights—and is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the alternative biofuels making their way into people’s gas tanks. It can be made from various sources, but the most common are corn and sugarcane. The U.S. government in early 2011 approved ethanol blends of up to 15 percent for use in vehicle models newer than 2001, and blends of 10 percent have been used for years now with no need for engine modification. But there has been controversy surrounding just how sustainable ethanol actually is.
- It’s renewable! Ethanol can be regenerated given sufficient crop yield.
- Domestic production reduces dependence on foreign fossil fuels and boosts rural farming economies.
- Ethanol is cleaner burning than gasoline, releasing roughly 15 percent less greenhouse gas emissions
- Advances in cellulosic ethanol can make ethanol fuel from waste cellulose like scrap wood, food byproducts, and non-food plants such as switchgrass
- Ethanol derived from corn, beets, and sugarcane competes directly with food supply, and drive up the cost of other foods and grain-fed meats
- Farmed ethanol crops tend to erode soil and use toxic industrial agrochemicals that can contaminate water supplies.
- Ethanol has less stored energy than gasoline, reducing fuel mileage from between 15 to 30 percent
- It currently requires more energy to create large quantities of ethanol than it produces; however, cellulosic ethanol may be the “magic bullet” to solve this and the food competition dilemma.
- High blends or pure ethanol can be corrosive to engines not designed to run on it, and cannot be transported via existing oil pipelines due to corrosion restraints.
- Converting a standard gasoline engine to run on high blends or pure ethanol can be costly, ranging from several hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Top Ethanol Companies
- Archer Daniels Midland
- Growth Energy
Gaining in popularity, biodiesel mimics petroleum-based diesel fuel and is derived from vegetable or animal oils. In fact, several biodiesel companies simply collect used restaurant cooking oil and convert it into biodiesel. What’s more exciting is the more recent promise of biodiesel-generating algae and bacteria strains. Scientists are even genetically engineering these microorganisms to create biodiesel lipids with minimal or no feedstock necessary, just sunlight and CO2, much like plant photosynthesis!
- It’s also renewable! Sufficient plant, algae or bacteria crops can yield abundant biodiesel fuel.
- It’s recycled! Much of the biodiesel on the market is derived from used cooking vegetable oils.
- Domestic production reduces dependence on foreign fossil fuels and boosts rural farming economies.
- Reduces tailpipe emissions compared to petroleum-based diesel, is cleaner burning, and contains no sulfur, eliminating sulfur dioxide emissions.
- Biodiesel is currently more expensive to commercially produce than petroleum diesel as production infrastructure is not yet on a mass-scale
- Biodiesel is susceptible to cold weather, and can gel when the temperature drops, causing fuel injection problems (although this can be fixed with costly engine modifications).
- While several diesel vehicle engines can run on biodiesel with minimal or no modifications, biodiesel does not work in standard gasoline engines.
- Biodiesel production increases food costs, both in food crops used to generate biodiesel, as well as feedstocks for biodisel generating algae and bacteria.
Top Biodiesel Companies
- Renewable Energy Group Inc.
- Australian Renewable Fuels Limited
- Imperium Renewables Inc.
- Cargill, Inc.
While it’s the less well known of the three biofuels featured, biobutanol holds the most promise. Biobutanol is simply isobutanol derived from bacteria or algae, much like biodiesel. However, the beauty of biobutanol is that it can potentially be directly used in standard gasoline engines with no modification!
- It’s also renewable! Biobutanol is produced from algae or bacteria.
- It can be used directly in gasoline engines with no modification.
- It can use existing pipeline and supply chain infrastructure for distribution.
- It has a high octane level, so there’s little if any loss in fuel mileage.
- Non-corrosive to engines and pipelines
- Domestic production reduces dependence on foreign fossil fuels
- Feedstocks are required for production, although non-food feedstocks and genetically modified bacteria and algae strains may resolve this issue.
- Production costs are relatively high, but the industry is in its infancy, and as it grows costs will come down.
Top BioButanol Companies
- Butamax: a DuPont and BP joint venture
- Cobalt Technologies
- Bioenergy International
Industry movement with heat decarbonisation
It is estimated that the heat network market requires approximately £30 billion of investment by 2050 to meet the UK Government’s net zero targets, and the decarbonisation of heat has been highlighted as a particular challenge.
The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget states the UK should target 20% of UK heat demand through low-carbon heat networks by 2050 - but as with most discussions surrounding mass decarbonisation, even reaching that target won't be an easy task. In the UK approximately 40% of energy consumption and 20% of GHG emissions are due to the heating and hot water supply for buildings.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that globally, around half of all energy consumption is used for providing heat, mainly for homes and industry.
Source: Heat Trust
This week saw some positive movement, however, with gas distribution company SGN and UK renewable energy solutions provider Vital Energi announcing a 50:50 joint venture, which will create an Energy Services Company (ESCO) representing utility infrastructure and heat network providers.
This includes delivery of heat to developments planned by SGN’s property arm, SGN Place, and the local vicinities where there is a demand for low-carbon heat.
The objective is to supply new and existing residential, industrial and commercial facilities and development activity is already underway for two projects in Scotland and the South East, with another 20 in the pipeline. SGN is looking to develop alternative heat solutions alongside its core gas distribution business and expand into the growing district heating market, recognising the future of heat is likely to include a mix of technological solutions and energy sources.
Vital Energi is seeking to expand into asset ownership opportunities to complement its core design, build and operations businesses. The complementary skillsets of both organisations will offer a compelling proposition for developers, commercial and industrial users and public sector bodies seeking low-carbon heat solutions.
SGN’s Director of Commercial Services and Investments Marcus Hunt said: “Heat networks are likely to play an increasing role in the delivery of UK heat in the context of net zero. The creation of this joint venture with market-leading Vital Energi enables us to build a presence in this emerging market, delivering new heat infrastructure and supporting decarbonisation.”
Nick Gosling, Chief Strategy Officer at Vital Energi, said: “Combining the resources, expertise and know-how of both organisations will allow us to play a major role in delivering the UK’s transition to low and zero-carbon heat.”
In March, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) starting collaborating with Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) to decarbonise heat and power at Kirkwall Airport through green hydrogen technology. 2G Energy was selected to deliver a CHP plant which generates heat and electricity from 100% hydrogen.
Heat decarbonisation options
The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) highlights the following options for decarbonising heating.
Use renewable electricity to generate heat in the home. As power sector emissions fall, emissions associated with electric heating are decreasing rapidly.
Low carbon gases
Replace natural gas that most homes use for heating with hydrogen, which releases energy but not carbon dioxide, the only waste product is water. Biomethane is also an option as it produces less carbon than natural gas over a full lifecycle.
For hydrogen to work, the pipes in the national gas grid would need to be replaced and home boilers would need to be adapted or changed. This is possible but could incur considerable cost.
Biomethane is chemically identical to methane from natural gas, so is suited to existing infrastructure and appliances. It is unlikely, however, that it can be produced in sufficient quantities to replace fossil gas entirely.
A hybrid system combining both electrification and hydrogen is a third option. Here, heat pumps could be used to meet the majority of heat demand, with a (low carbon) gas boiler taking over in extremely cold weather. Advantages of this approach include helping establish a market for heat pumps while hydrogen is developed to displace natural gas in the hybrid system eventually, and the ability to call on hydrogen when heat demand is at its very highest.
Heat networks connect a central heat source to a number of buildings via a series of underground hot water pipes, and are popular in countries such as Denmark, where heat networks supply 63% of households. The Government expects the heat networks market in the UK to grow quickly to supply up to 20% of heat demand over the next decade or so, investing £320 million into its flagship Heat Networks Investment Project to help get this underway.
Heat networks work particularly well in built-up urban areas or industrial clusters where there is a large and concentrated demand for heat. Over time, it is thought that if the central heat source can be low carbon, then there is the opportunity to ensure that multiple homes and buildings are decarbonised at once.
Biomass can be used to reduce emissions when used instead of more polluting fuels like oil in off gas grid properties. Support for biomass boilers has been available since 2011 via the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), but take-up has been low.
Supply constraints also restrict the role that biomass – burning solid material such as wood – can play. In any case, according to the Committee on Climate Change, this resource may be better used in other sectors of the economy such as construction, where it provides carbon storage without the need for CCS and reduces demand for carbon-intensive materials such as steel and cement.
The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC)'s latest report sets out how rapidly increasing demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero-carbon options are rapidly scaled-up and use of bioresources carefully prioritised.
"Alternative zero-carbon solutions, such as clean electrification or hydrogen, must be developed rapidly to lessen the need for bio-based solutions," it states.
The overall decarbonisation of industry is another major challenge, especially among four sectors that contribute 45 percent of CO2 emissions: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene, according to a McKinsey report.
The process demands reimagining production processes from scratch and redesigning existing sites with costly rebuilds or retrofits. Furthermore, companies that adopt low-carbon production processes will see a short- to mid-term increase in cost, ultimately placing them at an economic disadvantage in a competitive global commodities market.
Ken Hunnisett is Project Director for the Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP)’s delivery partner Triple Point, which is the delivery partner for the government's Heat Network Investment Project, which is responsible for investing up to £320million in strategic, low-carbon heat network projects across England and Wales.
He is calling for the urgent need to invest in the development of new heating infrastructure to support the nation’s decarbonisation effort. So far £165m of HNIP funds have prompted £421m CAPEX, providing more green jobs as the UK economy eases from the lows sustained from the pandemic.
Decarbonising the UK's heating infrastructure is critical if we are to reach our net-zero goals and it’s crucial that progress is made in this decisive decade, he added.
"Heat networks are a part of the lowest-cost pathway to decarbonising our homes and workplaces in the future but are also the bit of the jigsaw that we can be putting into place now," he said. "Penetration into the UK market is still low, despite heat representing 37% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, the largest single contributor by some way. Funding needs to be urgently directed towards reducing the environmental impact of the residential sector, particularly given the slow pace of the decline in residential emissions in comparison to those of business and transport."
Currently, just 3% of UK buildings are serviced by heat networks. "Further investment in this industry, using public and private funds, will not only drive wider sustainability targets but will boost the economy by providing more green jobs as the country emerges from the pandemic," he said.