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ACHEMA Trend Report: Bioethanol and Biodiesel fuel the Bioeconomy

| By Chemical Engineering

  •  The bio-based economy is dominated by ethanol
  • The biodiesel industry is endangered by iLUC factors
  • Long term planning reliability is necessary to keep Europe’s bioeconomy competitive

Sustainability is one of the global megatrends and driver of the bio-based economy. The idea is to build a new economy made from what can be grown in the fields and woods instead of relying on the finite resources of oil wells – as fast as possible, of course. The aim is ambitious; after all, it took the mineral oil based economy 150 years to grow into what it is today. You can’t beat the idea of a bioeconomy regarding the potential for sustainability. However, as long as price has higher priority than greenhouse gas emissions, competition will be fierce. Further major players that need to be considered when discussing how to supply people and industries with energy and chemical building blocks are coal from China and shale gas from the US.

Bioethanol is popular worldwide

Using the allegory of the mineral oil refinery, production plants for bio-based chemicals are often called “biorefineries”. However, while in an oil refinery the components of crude oil are converted into a multitude of different chemicals, many biorefineries only know one product: alcohol. The most popular biobased product by far today is ethanol, which accounts for 90% of all fermented products. Roughly 100,000 billion litres were distilled in 2013 with the major producers being the US with 50,000 billion litres and Brazil with 24,000 billion litres. Europe is playing a minor role in this market, with a production of 5,000 billion litres, of which Germany contributed 0.852 billion litres.

Rise in food prices is a matter of distribution

First bioethanol plants got into a predicament as they were using maize as substrate – maize that could alternatively have been made into tortillas. This opened Pandora’s box on the discussion about whether cereal should be used to feed people or the tanks of their cars.This discussion dies quickly with a look on which acreage is used for biofuel production: assuming that 1,500 million hectares of our planet are arable land, the crop of 1.7% of this area (25 million hectares) is fermented into alcohol or used to produce other types of biofuel. Even if the alcohol industry fulfills the projected growth rate of 4.4% until 2020, rising food prices have their causes elsewhere. Nonetheless, the food or feed discussion was one of the reasons to develop second generation biorefineries.

Second generation biorefineries: waste as substrate

The substrate for second generation biorefineries is what is left in the field after the valuable part has been put to good use. Think forest slash – branches and twigs remaining after the logs have been transported to the sawmill – or straw on harvested wheat and barley fields.
These woody residues pose an additional technological challenge. In contrast to maize or wheat, which consist mostly of starch, straw is made of cellulose, which is a lot tougher to digest for the yeasts that are the actual ethanol producers. An additional step is necessary to degrade cellulose into its sugary building blocks with the help of enzymes. Scaling up saccharification was one of the technological breakthroughs in recent years and is now going mainstream.

Cellulosic ethanol is on the rise

In Germany small scale prevails when it comes to cellulosic ethanol production. Clariant operates a demonstration plant in Straubing with an annual capacity of 1.2 million litres ethanol per year. Several large scale operations went online worldwide since 2013: Beta Renewables will produce 75 million litres/year in Crescentino, Italy, and DSM the same amount in Emmetsburg, Iowa, USA. Abengoa aims at 95 million litres/year in Hugoton, Kansas, USA and DuPont at 113 million litres/year in Nevada, Iowa, USA. In Brazil sugarcane straw is used to fuel Raizen’s 83 million litre/year operation in Piricicaba. To make 79 million litres/year in Alagoas state, Brazil, GranBio developed a special energy cane that can be grown on degraded pastureland and does not compete with sugarcane.

First fuel, then platform chemical

It should be mentioned that ethanol can be used for more than just burning in an engine. Even though it is not part of the list of 12 platform chemicals named “top molecules” in 2004, ethanol is an important starter molecule for a range of biobased value chains. Ethylacetate and ethylacrylate are accessible from ethanol, as are butanol, isobutene and butadiene. Recently, a couple of large projects for the production of biobased polyethylene or ethyleneglycol have been stopped as cheap shale gas shatters the competitiveness of bioethanol. Nonetheless, it should be stated: A biobased economy won’t work without ethanol as an intermediary product.

Biodiesel: from zero to hero and back within 30 years

It is eye-catching that most of the big investments for cellulosic ethanol are made in the US and in Brazil or – the other way round – the big investments are NOT made in Europe.The key players of bioeconomy, regardless of being entrepreneur, financing expert or funding agency, agree on one topic: to keep up with worldwide competition Europe needs a change in policy. Long term planning reliability is what investors seek most and what they are currently lacking in Europe. Biodiesel is a prime and negative example of how abrupt policy changes can endanger a thriving industry.

Bioethanol clearly dominates the biofuel market, but biodiesel plays an important role as well. In 2010 global production totaled 17.6 billion liters, of which the European Union supplied more than half with 9,100 billion litres. Germany contributed 26% (2,350 billion litres) to this and France 22% (1,996 billion litres). Large scale production of biodiesel only began in the 1990s in Europe and is one of the big success stories of bioeconomy. Favorable legislation granting tax exemption for biofuels caused a veritable biodiesel boom, but in 2008 the exemption was rescinded and the market volume of B100 (pure biodiesel) shrank to insignificance. The overall production volume has been stable over the last few years just because biodiesel is increasingly mixed into fossil diesel.

Indirect land use change factors will put biodiesel out of bounds

Biodiesel production is usually based on vegetable oil, although animal fats can be used too. In Germany most of the biodiesel is made from rapeseed oil for which an area of about one million hectares is used;soy beans, palm kernels and coconuts play a minor role in the raw materials mix.There is growing concern that increasing renewable raw materials acreage in Europe will cause global displacement effects in land use. Such land use changes can be direct (dLUC), if for example rainforest is cleared to establish new palm plantations. Indirect land use change (iLUC) has a longer and more complex chain of cause and effect. The European Commission has tried to take iLUC factors into account when it presented its recommendations on changes to the Renewable Energy Directive and on changing the Fuel Quality Directive. However, the entire German and European biofuels industry has massively criticized the suggestions of the EU Environmental Committee. If these factors would be put into action as suggested, they would put biodiesel in a position worse than fossil fuels, as far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned. “The introduction of iLUC factors means the end of vegetable oil-based biofuel” states the German Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants (UFOP) in its report on the current situation and prospects of biodiesel.
This would be problematic for a multitude of reasons, one of which is rapeseed press cake. This residue of rapeseed oil production is rich in protein and used as animal feed. Any missing amount of locally produced press cake would need to be replaced, in the worst case with imported soy meal.

Taking off with microalgae

Next generation biofuels are ready for take-off: Biofuels made from microalgae. There is a general agreement that the exclusive production of energy from microalgae is not competitive: Algae will probably not fuel the family car. But for aviation and heavy duty vehicles that cannot use electromobility, microalgae offer a solution for the future: They use little land, the competition for arable land can be neglected; they basically need air and light in order to grow, and closed systems allow for the recovery of nutrients. Processing is easier than for leafy land plants, and they can be engineered for the production of specific oils. First flights fuelled by algae that KLM, Lufthansa or Air China have started in recent years are more than just a marketing hype: They demonstrate the feasibility of aviation in an era after kerosene.

Summary: Biofuels have been the avant-garde of the bioeconomy. They have demonstrated the potential but also the tricky details of biobased production. Thanks to the “food vs fuel” discussion, today’s biobased products are scrutinized for sustainability and competitive land use. Even if biofuels might be a niche application in a future era of eletromobility, they are essential for certain applications.

ACHEMA 2015 addresses the growing bioeconomy with the focal topic BiobasedWorld. Technologies and services are shown throughout the exhibition groups and are presented in a special guide.
On Wednesday, June 17th, lignocellulosic biorefineries are featured with a session in the conference program followed by a roundtable discussion.