Can Biofuels Make a Dent in Replacing Petroleum?

Even as the the advanced biomass industry – which makes fuel from various waste products – is finally gearing up, a report  casts doubt on whether the industry can ever make a dent
in displacing the mind-boggling amount of petroleum consumed by humans around the world.

In the US, production is expected to increase 20-fold this year, but it would take an area the size of Russia to provide the feedstock needed to replace the petroleum used in chemicals and fuels, says Lux Research.

Processing a billion metric tons of biomass every year would replace just 3% of total petroleum products!

And that doesn’t take into account any growth in demand for petroleum, which will almost quadruple between now and 2030, according to Lux.

Clearly, the biofuels industry can’t grow to any significant size without either infringing on land used for food production or by dramatically stepping up technological innovation.

“By 2030, the number will soar to 3.7 billion metric tons, and meeting the growing challenge will require feedstock innovations such as crop modification, new value chain configurations, and agronomic technology improvements like irrigation and biosensors,” says Kalib Kersh, Lux Research analyst and a lead author of the report.

Last year, the EU set limits on crop-based biofuels because of rising food prices worldwide and shifted the focus to agricultural residues like straw, and potentially algae. International pressure has been growing for governments to reduce farmland set aside for ethanol because of extensive droughts last summer that led to record high global grain and other food prices.

Which technologies and approaches could make up the difference without putting more strain on agricultural systems?

According to Lux, which reviewed plans set out by 1,715 established and planned bio-based chemical and fuel facilities,  the following developments could be instrumental:

Use of waste as a feedstock. Municipal solid waste and waste gases such as carbon dioxide and flue gas are potential  feedstocks. For example, LanzaTech is experimenting with ways to make ethanol and 2,3-butanediol from flue gas, and  Fulcrum BioEnergy is investing in solid waste gasification.

Novel logistics methods. Companies like Sweetwater Energy and BlackGoldBiofuels are building “hub-and-spoke” models where satellite intermediate conversion facilities feed into a central processing facility, cutting transportation costs.

Crop modifications to reduce input needs. Dozens of universities and companies – including BASF, Mendel Biotechnology and Evogene — are working on bioengineered crops that are resistant to drought and pests, or that can fix their own nitrogen. 

The US Renewable Fuel Standard requires gasoline and diesel producers to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuel a year into their products by 2022, including 16 billion gallons of cellulosic fuel. The mandate has been in place for the past five years.

So far, biomass companies have fallen far short of those production levels and the US Environmental Protection Agency has had to cut targets.

The Renewable Fuels Association counters with its own research which shows the Renewable Fuel Standard is successfully reducing crude oil prices, decreasing imports and increasing gross domestic product with minimal effect on global food markets and land use.

That research, conducted by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab, concludes that full implementation of the standards would reduce oil prices 3% in 2015 and 7% in 2022, with a 0.8% improvement in GDP (which translates to $121 billion). 

Meanwhile, most advanced biomass companies have plants coming online this year or next, including KiORAbengoa BioenergyBlueFire RenewablesMascoma and Fulcrum Bioenergy. 

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