Biofuels for transport?

Biofuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels derived from biomass, could help offer an important low-greenhouse-gas alternative to petroleum.

That’s according to a new International Energy Agency (IEA) publication that looks at recent trends in biofuel production and considers how the future may look if recent initiatives in IEA countries and around the world are fully implemented.

The report – Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective – takes a global perspective on the nascent biofuels industry, assessing regional similarities and differences as well as the cost and benefits of the various biofuel options and technologies.

A major finding of the IEA’s analysis is that recent policy initiatives, if fully implemented, could result in up to a 5% displacement of motor gasoline use with biofuel (mainly ethanol) worldwide by 2010. This would represent an important step.

However, in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) regions most of this production will likely be of conventional ethanol using grain feedstocks such as corn and wheat. While this type of biofuels production can provide important benefits, production costs are generally high and reductions in fossil energy use and CO2 emissions are modest.

Further, grain-based ethanol (as well as conventional oil-seed-based biodiesel) must compete for land with crop production for other purposes, such as for food and animal feed, and supplies are likely to be limited.

The report also says that countries such as Brazil and India – that can grow and use sugar cane as a primary feedstock – are already producing relatively low-cost bio-ethanol with excellent characteristics. The high-yielding sugar cane that these countries use also provides sufficient crop waste to power the conversion of sugar to ethanol, virtually eliminating the need for fossil energy inputs and providing large reductions in CO2.

Since over the next two decades these and other developing countries may be able to produce more sugar cane ethanol than they need domestically, the IEA proposes that a global trade in biofuels be more rigorously pursued and identifies existing obstacles to this trade.

However, for the longer term, research into advanced biofuels production techniques is bearing fruit. It now appears likely that within a few years the first commercial-scale production facilities will be built to produce ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks such as crop wastes, grasses and trees, using far less fossil energy and providing much larger reductions in CO2 emissions per litre of fuel than the current processes.

Use of cellulosic feedstocks would also substantially increase potential biofuels supply. Advanced biomass conversion to synthetic diesel fuel is also under development, using gasification and other techniques, which could eventually allow commercial production of much higher yielding, low-greenhouse-gas biodiesel fuel.

The report reviews these important developments, but stresses that much greater government attention and support for demonstration and commercialisation of this “next generation” of biofuels is needed to ensure that they succeed and that the potential benefits of biofuels use in the future are maximised.

Overall, the report concludes that the future for biofuels use around the world is bright, though current production practices in IEA countries fall short of maximising the potential benefits on offer.