Will biofuels power the world?
Or will they cause as much destruction as they are trying to avoid?
When I think of biofuels, I think of off-grid living. I would in-fact be very wrong. Biofuels are fully integrated into our day to day lives and have been around longer than cars but, cheaper alternative fuel types, diesel and petrol, have kept their usage out of the public eye. For the last decade the use of fossil fuel has been brought into question, escalating environmental pressures and the downward spiral of oil prices have led many to explore different fuel types that would benefit both the environment and consumers.
In 2019 the International Energy Agency reported biofuel usage in the transport sector grew by 6% and is expected to grow 3% annually for the next five years. The expanse of the biofuel market means there are growing problems that threaten the integrity of the raw material used as feedstock.
Biofuel type and producers
Biofuels are produced from a variety of feedstock such as plants, animal waste, algae, cooking greases and wastewater sludge. The variety of feedstock demands different techniques to transform the raw material into fuel, generally, chemical reactions, fermentation and heat are used to break down the starches, sugars and other molecules in plants to create fuel that can be further refined.
One of the most common types of biofuels is ethanol. In 2018 the USA was the largest producer of biofuel reportedly crushing more than 5.5 billion corn bushels in order to be used as ethanol feedstock. Ethanol fuel is also widely used in Brazil, the second largest producer of biofuel, and Argentina, however instead of corn, sugarcane is the main feedstock. Ethanol is popular as a biofuel because of its oxygen content which helps engine efficiency, reducing air pollution.
Asides from ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel are other alternative fuel types. Biodiesel is derived from fats such as vegetable, animal and recycled cooking grease (UCO). Renewable diesel, created from fats or plant-based waste, is considered a drop-in fuel, that doesn’t have to be blended with conventional diesel.
Fraudulent activity in the biofuel industry has been well documented. In 2017, Taiwan recycled twelve and a half thousand tonnes of cooking oil yet exported 11 million litres to the UK and Ireland in the same year. This is a concern as volumes are most likely topped up with irresponsible materials, most likely palm oil, a substance that does not adhere to the RED II ‘Clean Energy for all Europeans’ initiative.
The use of palm oil in products and the problems that it causes are well understood. The destruction of rainforests to grow palm oil plants compromises diverse and delicate ecosystems whilst also compromising people’s way of life. Campaigns publicising the effects of palm oil in foods have resonated with the public and in 2018 figures show the use of palm oil in food products dropped by 11% yet grew in biodiesel by 3%. This increase is most likely due to consumers not knowing the chemical make-up of the fuel.
Irresponsible sourcing of feedstock and fraudulent reporting of feedstock quantities is something the industry could be about to see a sharp rise in. European UCO suppliers have raised concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could mean that there will be a shortfall in the coming months of up to 70-90%. This deficit could result in irresponsible sourcing by some parties to make up volume.
Traceability of biofuels
Reliable data within the biofuel industry is lacking. Organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials Organisation (RSB) have devised a certification process to identify and mitigate risks along the supply chain. RSB ensure suppliers are socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and credibly sourced – supporting the mitigation of business, environmental and social risk.
This accreditation process requires audits every one to two years in order to uphold certification. RSB are making valuable advances in the biofuel industry, however the question of what happens on the ‘shop floor’ between audits when crop harvest falls short, will organisations find it too easy to top up volumes with irrespirable material if they believe it will go unnoticed?
Circulor has the expertise to compliment RSB certification with continuous, real time data to ensure material of unknown or irresponsible origin is not being added into the supply chain between onsite audits. If unrealistic production quantities are recorded within the system, the Circulor platform will flag and alert customers to potential wrong doings in their supply chain, allowing them to confront and tackle the problem quickly and efficiently.
Biofuels have the capability to fuel motor vehicles, ships, and planes, but for it to contribute toward reducing greenhouse gases, the raw materials have to be sourced in a sustainable and responsible manner.