Biofuels are part of the solution to cutting CO2 emissions in transport. What's less certain is which ones will be used and how large a part will they play.
Transport is a highly competitive, low margin, cost focussed market and whilst we all understand the environmental arguments, operators need be competitive. Many alternative fuels are more expensive than diesel although carbon taxes, new technology and development grants for alternative fuels will all help level the playing field.
First, let's briefly cover the issue of cutting CO2 emissions in transport. The starting point for most companies must be to reduce CO2 emissions by making their transport operations more efficient. The beauty of these improvements is that the economic and environmental benefits are proportional and complimentary.
For every £1,000 of fuel saved 2.6 tonnes less CO2 goes into the atmosphere.
Now lets look at biofuels. The benefit of biofuels is that many are both available and can be used in most modern engines with little or no modification. Most are compatible with fossil fuels and are used as a blend or mix of fossil and bio fuels. Biodiesel is compatible with diesel, bioethonol with petrol and biogas, being methane based, with natural gas.
Biodiesel comes from plants such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya bean and palm oils. Bioethonol is from starch, sugar or cellulose crops such as wheat or sugar beet and is already widely used in Brazil and in the USA.
The great benefit of these fuels is that they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere during their growing cycle potentially giving a very positive net CO2 effect (60-70% less compared to diesel) when the total life cycle is considered.
Most engine manufacturers guarantee their engines when used with a 5% blend of biodiesel or bioethonol and some will guarantee up to 30% with no engine modifications. And, biofuels are starting to take off in the UK where we now have 165 biodiesel and 16 bioethonol refuelling stations. Typically, the blend is only 5% biofuel so it can be used in all vehicles, giving a 3% reduction in CO2. It's a long way from solving global warming, but it's a start.
But if the argument for biofuels were as straightforward as this it would only be a matter of time before we were all running on it, wouldn't it? Exactly.
If biofuel crops are replacing existing food crops, the benefit of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere could be significantly reduced. Worst still this can increase food prices and create shortages such as the tortilla shortage in Mexico – a result of increased biofuel production in the USA.
The total carbon life cycle analysis for biofuels must take account of farming and production techniques. Some crops require high levels of nutrients in the soil leading to the use of fertilisers which themselves use energy to produce, as does food processing.
The other much-publicised concern around biofuels is the clearing of rainforest to make way for the farmland and plantations. This clearly has a negative environmental impact not only on CO2 but also on ecosystems and entire species. The palm oil industry has already developed 6.5 million hectares of plantations in Sumatra and Borneo and has set aside a total of 10m hectares of rainforest this is an area larger than Ireland.
Most studies agree that biofuels cannot totally replace fossil fuels because there is simply not enough land to support both biofuel crops and food production.
Large-scale biofuel production may have challenges competing for land in developed areas like Western Europe or in forested regions. But there are many developing countries that have spare agricultural capacity with the climate and land that suits the production of biofuels without having to resort to forest clearances or reliance on manufactured fertilisers. In these cases biofuel production can help develop local economies.
Additionally the new generation of biofuel crops such as forestry waste, tall grasses, fast growing coppice willows and even algae that can be grown in salt water are also in development.
And let's not forget biogas. The potential benefits of this fuel are enormous, having 95% less CO2 and 80% less nitric oxides than diesel and zero particle emissions. The raw materials for the production of Biogas are readily available. Rotting municipal and food waste, human and animal sewage can all be used.
The most common form of production is to put waste into a digester and process the resulting methane gas. Methane is itself a greenhouse gas, which would normally be released into the atmosphere. By capturing and burning it as fuel, this harmful gas can be removed. Biogas is manufactured to the same specification, and therefore compatible with, natural gas.
Sweden is currently developing biogas production facilities and has about 7,000 vehicles on the road with plans for 80,000 vehicles by 2010. The UK currently has no biogas refuelling stations and only 18 natural gas stations. And yet there is estimated to be enough biogas available in the UK to fuel half of the HGV fleet.
Biofuels like many other techniques and technologies, do have their part to play in cutting CO2 emissions in transport. Some are already available, some are widely used in other parts of the world but all need to be sustainable.
In the longer term, more road vehicles may run using electricity or hydrogen fuel cells from a renewable electricity source like wind, water, solar, tidal and nuclear power. These technologies also have their limitations and drawbacks so the continued development and implementation of sustainable biofuels is part of the solution of reducing our carbon emissions.
With current global targets of 25% to 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 being discussed to stabilise the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and stop the rise in global warming, it's clear that all available techniques and technologies need to be explored.
Whether one technology will provide a global transport solution in the same way as oil has for the past 100 years has yet to be determined.
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