Biofuels might be nothing new, says Sarah Harding, PhD, but there’s still a lot that’s new in biofuels.
Dukes of Hazzard fans might remember one of my favourite episodes, when Uncle Jesse’s moonshine is used to power his old ‘ridge runner’, Black Tilly. Could this have been what inspired a generation of students in the 1990s to run their XUD engines on vegetable oil? Or maybe it was just that, at £0.12/L, it was markedly cheaper than diesel, which was steadily edging up to £1/L around that time.
An acquaintance who wishes to remain nameless (it was not entirely legal to run cars on vegetable oil, after all, even for students) recalls shopping in his local supermarket for 50L of sunflower oil.
“Having a party, are you?” the check-out lady enquired.
“Err… yes,” he replied, wondering what sort of party requires 50L of vegetable oil and not much else.
But we digress.
My point is that biofuels are nothing new. At the 1900 World’s Fair, the Otto company demonstrated a diesel engine that ran on peanut oil, and Henry Ford designed a Model T car (1903–1926) powered by hemp-derived biofuel. These energy sources were pushed into the background following the availability of huge supplies of crude oil in the early 20th century. Interest in biofuels faded away, but economic and environmental concerns associated with petrochemicals has led to renewed attention in recent years.
In fact, by 2010 worldwide biofuel production had grown to 105 billion litres; 2.7% of the world’s fuels for road transport. This might be just a drop in the ocean, but the sector is showing steady growth and the International Energy Agency has a goal for biofuels to meet more than a quarter of world demand for transportation fuels by 2050.
Biofuels can be derived directly from plants (energy crops), or indirectly from agricultural or industrial waste. Renewable biofuels generally involve carbon fixation, such as that which occurs through photosynthesis in plants or algae. Other biofuels are made through the use of biomass, which can be converted to convenient energy-containing substances by thermal conversion, chemical conversion, and biochemical conversion.
Currently, the most common biofuel worldwide – especially the Americas – is ethanol, which is made by the fermentation of sugar or starch crops such as corn, sugarcane or sweet sorghum, or non-food cellulosic biomass such as trees or grasses. Ethanol can be used in petrol engines, where it is usually blended with petrol (typically 15% bioethanol content).
In Europe, biodiesel is the most common biofuel. Biodiesel is produced from oils or fats using transesterification, and is similar in composition to fossil diesel. Feedstocks for biodiesel include animal fats, vegetable oils, soy, rapeseed, flax, sunflower, palm oil, hemp and algae. Chemically, it consists mostly of fatty acid methyl (or ethyl) esters (FAMEs). Biodiesel can be used in its pure form (B100) but, due to some maintenance and performance issues (e.g. viscosity at lower temperatures) it is normally blended with fossil diesel.
In response to economic, environmental and consumer pressures, oil and gas companies are once again making headway in renewable and low-carbon energy production. Some of them, in fact, have quickly become leading producers of low carbon energy. This isn’t all about biofuels – Total (one of the world’s seven ‘Supermajor’ oil companies) is leading the charge with a major drive in solar energy; Norwegian offshore oil and gas specialist Statoil and Danish oil and gas producer Dong Energy are both focussing on wind turbines; while Canadian pipeline majors Enbridge and TransCanada have growing portfolios of solar, wind, geothermal and hydro projects.
Since 2009, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics have been working together to turn algae into low-emission transportation fuel. The collaboration has fostered significant breakthroughs, including how to scale algae biofuels for commercial deployment. The hope is that this energy source will fuel the world’s trucks, planes and other large transportation vessels. By 2025, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics aim to have the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day. This will signal a key engineering milestone for large-scale production of algae biofuel.
AlgaEnergy and Yokogawa Electric Corporation are also focussing on algae, with a recent partnership giving AlgaEnergy access to Yokogawa’s advanced technologies that will be key for increasing production volumes. In a statement to the press, Augusto Rodríguez-Villa, AlgaEnergy’s President, stated that the partnership was based on “the belief that more sustainable development is possible and that microalgae can be a key contributor towards that objective.”
Speciality chemicals companies support the biofuel industry with innovative chemistries that reduce air pollution, prevent deposits and corrosion, enhance fermentation and transesterification, improve efficiency, and boost profitability. These include base chemicals, buffering agents, corrosion inhibitors, antibacterial agents, defoamers, absorption fluids, CO2 scrubber emissions control additives, surfactants… and more.
The shift from fossil fuels to biofuels is no barrier for an industry that has been built its strength in technology development processes and execution. While the transition might not be rapid, there may never have been a better time for companies to invest in renewable energy.
Sarah Harding worked as a medical writer and consultant in the pharmaceutical industry for 15 years, for the last 10 years of which she owned and ran her own medical communications agency that provided a range of services to blue-chip Pharma companies. In 2016, she began a new career in publishing as Editor of Speciality Chemicals Magazine, and in 2019 we were honoured to welcome her as Editorial Director at Chemicals Knowledge.