The way in which we fuel our society is changing faster than ever before. Fossil fuels are becoming more and more scarce in the coming years. The transition we face from a fossil fuel powered economy, to one driven by renewable energy is a steep one. One key possibility is the use of biofuels instead of solar and electrical power. Biofuels are produced in a short space of time from biomass such as plants, algae and industrial biowaste. Here are some of the biggest trends shaping the sector, and this vertical is looking to be a key player in our future consumption.
Written by: Tanay Sonawane, Varshith Uppalapati, Jonathan Ouyang, Jasper Wigley and Filip Vrábel
Advanced Biofuels Development
In the quest for sustainable energy solutions, the spotlight is turning towards advanced biofuels crafted from plant materials. Prevalent biofuels in the market like corn ethanol, face environmental and competition challenges, sparking interest in alternatives. This exploration navigates the realms of advanced biofuels, spotlighting two noteworthy contenders: cellulosic ethanol and algae-based biofuels.
Cellulosic ethanol, derived from plant fibers, promises heightened efficiency and sustainability. Embracing leaves, stems, and other plant components, this biofuel taps into Earth's abundant cellulose, offering a remarkable energy return on investment compared to conventional grain-based sources. Noteworthy is its potential to thrive on less fertile lands, reducing the contentious competition between food and fuel. It not only curtails soil erosion but also fosters biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, contributing to more resilient ecosystems.
In parallel, the potential of algae-based biofuels beckons. Algae, diverse aquatic organisms adept at photosynthesis, stand as a versatile source for biodiesel, bioethanol, and biogas. Microalgae, boasting higher yields and faster growth, present a compelling case for the biofuel landscape. Despite formidable investments from industry players like Airbus and ExxonMobil, the scale-up to commercial production remains a challenge. High production costs loom as a hurdle, with estimates suggesting a cost of over US$6 per liter for microalgal biodiesel. Moreover, in the UK, where biofuels are in high demand, about 80% are imported because cultivating enough algae locally is tricky. The UK climate lacks the constant sunshine and temperatures that algae prefer, so scientists are exploring ways to develop special algae that can thrive in cooler conditions with less sunlight, like solving a complex puzzle. They're also exploring how to use algae for other important purposes to make production more affordable. While these biofuels are promising, there's ongoing work to make them practical and accessible globally. The journey towards large-scale algal biofuel production is underway, presenting a captivating intersection of innovation, environmental consciousness, and economic viability.
One startup playing a key role in this is Viridos, an American firm specialising in creating combustible low carbon fuels for logistics across marine, aviation and land transport. The firm creates engineered microalgae which can be turned into fuel. Ultimately, the idea allows for the creation of a biofuel that potentially reduces stress on water reserves and arable land.
Emergence of Circular Bioeconomy
Any student of history will confidently tell us that our current economic system has generated enormous wealth and spurred human development since The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Any student of economics will tell you that economics fundamentally revolves around the concept of optimality. Or in other words, efficiency. Yet, in decades of trying to achieve continuous wealth and efficiency, we have overlooked the importance of other key concepts such as equity, and, perhaps more importantly, sustainability. Inequality is rising for over 70% of the global population, 60% of all ecosystem services are degraded, and nearly 1 million species are threatened by extinction. With statistics like this, it’s hard to wonder if our system truly is the optimal one.
But now, in the grand tapestry of our planet’s economy, we are seeing a promise of a greener and more sustainable future on the horizon with the rise of the circular bioeconomy (CBE).
To explain CBE simply, picture a world where your car would be powered by the sawdust from a carpentry shop, and perhaps even the core of an apple you accidentally choked on during lunch. Indeed, at the heart of this revolution is the integration of biofuels into a circular economy, where waste and by-product from various industries, including agriculture and forestry, are utilised for biofuel production, promoting sustainability and resource efficiency.
To give a small example of this system in operation, consider lignocellulosic biomass, which is the non-edible parts of plants like stalks and husks. This material is increasingly being used for industrial applications such as biorefining, biomedical, cosmeceutical, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics, and carbon materials due to their wide availability and renewable nature. Lignocellulosic biomass beautifully demonstrates that the CBE is not just about making biofuel, it’s about bringing intelligent approaches to using every bit of waste.
In speaking of the economic implications of CBE, the potential benefits it offers is impressive. It is estimated that the sustainable management of forests can create US$230 million in business opportunities and 16 million jobs by 2030. The overall CBE is likely to generate US$3.5 trillion in business opportunities and 87 million jobs in the same period. With statistics like this…well, you can probably imagine that support for the emergence of CBE has already begun. The European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBC), a venture capitalist fund dedicated to provide financing for companies that are involved in the growth of CBE, targeted an initial volume of €250 million, but is now oversubscribed at about €300 million. Exciting things are indeed about to come!
Canadian startup Enerkem has been key in pushing CBE products and ideas. The firm uses waste products from industry to create combustible fuels through gasification.
To sum up, we hope it is starting to become obvious that the CBE has the potential to be more than just a trend. With the world becoming increasingly aware of pressing environmental issues, CBE can become the dawn of a new era in sustainability. So, the next time you choke on an apple core, or chuck one in the bin, remember, in the world of CBE, that’s not just rubbish!
Electrofuels and Synthetic Biology
In the pursuit of sustainable energy, electric fuel demand and biomass represent pioneering efforts in alternative biofuels. The integration of these revolutionary approaches provides a glimpse into the future of environmentally friendly biofuel production. Electric fuel using renewable electricity to power microorganisms is a promising strategy for sustainable energy production. Combined with advances in biotechnology that enable precise microbial engineering, these two approaches have the potential to redefine the biofuel landscape and play a key role in shaping the energy future. Aquacycl is an example of a start-up using this ground-breaking tech to reshape the energy, fuel & waste industry. Companies like Aquacycl are are the forefront of the bio-tech revolution.
At the heart of this quest is the use of renewable electricity for biofuel production. The use of alternative electrochemical processes, in which electromicrobes gain energy to convert carbon dioxide into biofuels, means a departure from traditional processes that rely on limited fossil fuels is not suitable for global cleanup programs not only reducing carbon emissions but biofuels shifting towards cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy It also positions s as a key consumer. The interplay between renewable energy and biofuel production affects the transformative potential of electric fuels in the energy sector.
The integration of biomass in the demand for electric fuels adds precision technology to biofuel production. By genetically modifying microorganisms, researchers can optimize their metabolism and increase biofuel production. This method enables the production of microorganisms tailored to the specific requirements of biofuel production. Marrying electric fuels and biomass not only improves the efficiency of biofuel production but also addresses concerns about adaptability, adaptability and environmental a address sustainability as advances in genetic engineering continue to produce more efficient and environmentally friendly biofuels. The prospects for fuel solutions are looking increasingly promising.
Enexor, a groundbreaking startup, addresses organic and plastic waste challenges with its patented bioenergy system. This innovative technology not only provides immediate energy and cost savings but also significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions globally. The modular design allows for swift deployment and on-site mobilization, making it an ideal solution for microgrids seeking sustainable waste management and continuous renewable power.
As the world grapples with the urgent need to transition to sustainable energy sources, electric fuel exploration and biology are emerging as beacons of hope. The question of whether biofuels are the future plays an important role, and the innovations revealed in this study provide good and compelling evidence that renewable electricity and industrial microbial production can be synchronized to produce biofuels not only addresses current environmental concerns but make biofuels feasible, and scalable. It also positions itself as a forward-looking solution. Although challenges and questions remain, the continued development of electric fuels and biomass builds the potential of biofuels changing to build a more sustainable and resilient energy future.
Policy Support and Mandates
The goal of a sustainable future has certainly been on the mind of policy-makers and regulators for quite some time now. Biofuels are an important component of such policy initiatives, even if only recently receiving attention. In the summer of this year, the EU has moved to act, establishing a new framework building upon the Renewable Energy Directive 2018. The Member States have taken upon themselves the duty to guarantee that the share of renewable energy in the final consumption of energy in transport is at least 14% by 2030, including a minimum share of 3.5% of advanced biofuels. They are also required to set out an obligation on fuel suppliers that ensures the achievement of this target. The EU also aims to develop and improve the technical quality standards of biofuels and biofuel blends for vehicle engines. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Biden administration plans to increase the amount of biofuels that oil refiners must blend into the nation's fuel mix over the next three years. Brazil is still using a 2017 legislation as its policy building block. The National Biofuels Policy (RenovaBio) was signed into law (Federal Law Nº 13.576) in December 2017 with the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging a domestic biofuels industry and increasing the efficacy of biofuels as such. The legislation is proposing the creation of carbon intensity targets, to be allocated among fuel distributors in proportion to their market share and an implementation of a fines regime for non-compliance. Setting up ten-year targets would bring predictability to an uncertain market and private inspector firms would provide certainty in regards to the results by carrying out certification. Meanwhile the UK does not possess an explicit biofuels policy per se, but relies on its overall sustainability framework. The British approach has as its conceptual embryo the idea that sustainable biomass is inherently limited and must be treated cautiously within a hierarchical, priority-driven framework. Additional circular economy benefit are only envisaged in the long term (meaning, on the face of it, 2050) and contribution to carbon budgets in the medium term (2035) yet even in that period carbon capture is the number one tool - to produce negative emissions - with biomass only being used where the former is not usable and only in harder to decarbonise sectors with limited or no low carbon alternatives. In the short term, biomass is negligible, as the aim is to utilise existing infrastructure and planned investments to provide carbon abatement through existing policy frameworks.
These examples are but a few yet they illustrate quite the diversity of approach to the same underlying issue - the use of biofuels in achieving sustainability targets. What approach is the most efficient and should be preferred? Clearly, the EU’s take is heavily numerical and regulation-heavy as is to be expected based on past regulatory frameworks. The Brazilian initiative has so far only been a call to action, although one could argue that there is not much else to do besides setting up targets and a non-compliance penalty regime anyway. The Americans have only touched upon the topic slightly in terms of written out policy but have implemented the greatest number of actual programmes and academic material to investigate the issue. The British approach is clearly the worst, combining the over bloated complex language of an EU Directive with no real substance behind it.
In terms of a more abstract, overall look we can broadly differentiate between “technology-push” policies used to support processes from R&D to commercialisation, which primarily rely on technologies and innovative projects, and “market-pull” policies, such as biofuel blending mandates, fuel/CO2 excise tax exemptions/reductions and renewable or low carbon fuel standards. Both technology-push and demand-pull policies will be esslogy-neutral financing to encourage competition for funds between different technologies if we are to increase the rate of introduction and diffusion of new environmental technologies.
From the looks of it Biofuels really are shaping up to be a key driver of our journey to a truly sustainable future. The industry certainly has become more diverse and new ideas are consistently being developed. To push these developments aside and to purely focus on very traditional renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro power would be a mistake. In fact, with the wealth of startups and potential for growth within the sector, it deserves as much attention as possible from investors and aspiring founders.