Advanced biofuels

Advanced Biofuels in Europe


This page offers general information on advanced biofuels in Europe, with links to more detailed information on the EBTP website and other information sources.

What are Advanced biofuels?

What is the current production of Advanced Biofuels?

What are the benefits of advanced biofuels?

What different types of Advanced biofuels are there?

What feedstocks are used for advanced biofuels in Europe? What volumes are available?

Are the feedstocks for advanced biofuels sustainable?

What types of transport can advanced biofuels be used for? Are advanced biofuesl compatible with existing engines and infrastructures?

What is the being done to support commercialisation of advanced biofuels technology in Europe?


What are Advanced biofuels?

The EIBI definition

Advanced Biofuels are those (1) produced from lignocellulosic feedstocks (i.e. agricultural and forestry residues, e.g. wheat straw/corn stover/bagasse, wood based biomass), non-food crops (i.e. grasses, miscanthus, algae), or industrial waste and residue streams, (2) having low CO2 emission or high GHG reduction, and (3) reaching zero or low ILUC impact

Definitions of advanced biofuels - different approaches

A wide range of terms are used to refer to biofuels: first generation, second generation, third generation, 1G, 2G, 3G, next generation, sustainable, renewable, advanced, etc.. These classifications are variously based on:

  • type of feedstock;
  • conversion technology used;
  • properties of the fuel molecules produced;

all or any of which may be considered as advanced or next generation by different organisations.

These different approaches to classification arise partly because a great diversity of biofuels feedstocks and processes are currently being developed to meet sustainability and fuel quality standards, as well as the needs of road, aviation and marine end users. In additon. biofuels may be marketed as good, renewable, sustainable or next generation, partly for promotional purposes. So achieving a widely accepted definition of advanced and/or sustainable biofuels is a challenge.

Often the term is applied to biofuels produced from lignocellulosic (LC) or cellulosic biomass. This covers a range of plant molecules / materials containing cellulose, with varying amounts of lignin, chain length, and degrees of polymerization. This essentially means some cellulosic materials are relatively easy to breakdown into substrates (e.g. plant sugars) that can be used to create fuel molecules. For more complex ("more woody") cellulosic materials the production route to liquid biofuels may be more difficult and costly.

Taking this into account, the term advanced biofuels is typically used in a general way to describe:

a. Biofuels produced by *advanced processes from non-food feedstocks (e.g. wastes, agricultural & forestry residues, energy crops, algae). The end product may be equivalent to fuels produced by first generation technology (e.g. ethanol or FAME), or may be a different type of advanced biofuel (such as, BioDME or biokerosene). Generally, these "next generation" biofuels are considered more sustainable as the feedstock and processes used offer greater levels of GHG reduction and do not compete with food crops for land use.

b. The term "advanced biofuels" is also applied to biofuels with advanced properties, such as HVO, biopetroleum, biojet fuel, biobutanol, etc.. These end products may be more compatible with existing fuel infrastructures or offer other technical benefits. However, biofuels with improved properties may be made from a range of feedstocks (for example, oil crops or plant sugars). Ultimately, the aim is to produce biofuels with advanced properties from sustainable feedstocks that are not considered to compete adversely with food production systems, or lead to loss of stored carbon through deforestation.

This is covered in detail in the sustainability section of the EBTP website.

Biofuels produced from non-food crops or residues (e.g. oil crops grown on marginal land or Used Cooking Oils or animal fats) via first generation technology may also be referred to as next generation or sustainable, or sometimes grouped with advanced biofuels, even if no advanced processing technology is used.

A defintion of Generations of Biofuels based on carbon resource

To overcome the anomalies discussed above, a more scientific definition of the various generation biofuels (1G, 2G, 3G) can be described based on the carbon source from which the biofuel is derived as, as follows:

1st Generation - the source of carbon for the biofuel is sugar, lipid or starch directly extracted from a plant. The crop is actually or potentially considered to be in competition with food.

2nd Generation - the biofuel carbon is derived from cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin or pectin. For example this may include agricultural, foresty wastes or residues, or purpose-grown non-food feedstocks (e.g. Short Rotation Coppice, Energy Grasses).

3rd Generation - the biofuel carbon is derived from aquatic autotrophic organism (e.g. algae). Light, carbon dioxide and nutrients are used to produce the feedstock "extending" the carbon resouce available for biofuel production. This means, however, that a heterotrophic organism (using sugar or cellulose to produce biofuels) would not be considered as 3G.

This does not necessarily imply that 2G is always more sustainable that 1G and 3G is always more sustainable than 2G or 1G, as other factors relating to land use, competition with food crops, and the efficiency of the production process, total energy balance, etc need to be taken into account across each specific value chain.

What is the current production of Advanced Biofuels?

In its report “Status of Advanced Biofuels Demonstration Facilities in 2012”, IEA Bioenergy Task 39 lists 71 advanced biofuels production facilities worldwide, with a cumulative production capacity of 2,530,000 tons per year in 2012. Of all technologies for the production of advanced biofuels, hydrotreatment of vegetable oils has developed most rapidly and has contributed 2,190,000 tons per year to the worldwide biofuels production (representing ~2,4 % of the total worldwide biofuels production).

Information on European projects is available in the production facilities section of the ETIP Bioenergy website. Worldwide mapping is done by IEA Bioenergy Task 39 in its online database on advanced biofuels production facilities.

In 2011, the Advanced Biofuels Tracking Database listed 130 advanced biofuels production facilities, with a combined annual production capacity of ~700 million gallons in 2011, the largest part of which is HVO (572 million gallons in 2011).

What are the benefits of advanced biofuels?

Advanced bioenergy, including advanced biofuels, has the potential to create thousands of new jobs, stimulate rural development and generate wealth within the growing European bioeconomy. They contribute significantly to energy security in the transport sector, reduce GHG emissions and provide a long-term sustainable alternative to fossil fuels in Europe.

What types of Advanced biofuels are there?

The following describes in general terms some of the main types of advanced biofuels being developed in Europe and globally.

Cellulosic ethanol can be produced by hydrolysis and fermentation of lignocellulosic agricultural wastes such as straw or corn stover or from energy grasses or other energy crops. The end product is the same as conventional bioethanol, which is typically blended with gasoline.

Biomass to Liquid (BtL) is generally produced via gasification (heating in partial presence of oxygen to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen). Feedstocks include woody residues or wastes or energy crops. Gasification is followed by conditioning and then fuel synthesis via Fischer Tropsch or the "methanol-to-gasoline" process. BtL is used in diesel engines. It has also been approved as an aviation fuel.

High temperature plasma gasification can be used to convert a wider range of feedstocks to syngas, which can then be cleaned and converted into fuels.

Hydrotreated Vegetable Oils (HVO) / Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) do not have the detrimental effects of ester-type biodiesel fuels, such as increased NOx emission, deposit formation, storage stability problems, more rapid aging of engine oil or poor cold properties. HVOs are straight-chain paraffinic hydrocarbons that are free of aromatics, oxygen and sulfur and have high cetane numbers. They are also approved for use as aviation fuels. The aim is to produce HVOs from sustainable feedstocks.

BioDME (dimethylether) can be produced via catalytic dehydration of methanol or directly from syngas. Above -25°C or below 5 bar DME is a gas. Hence its use as a transport fuel can be considered similar to that of LPG.

BioSynthetic Natural Gas (BioSNG) is produced via an initial gasification step followed by gas conditioning, SNG synthesis and gas upgrading. BioSNG can be used in a similar way to biomethane (biogas) generated via anaerobic digestion (a biological process). Syngas may also be converted to liquid fuels.

Bio-oil/Bio-crude is produced by pyrolysis, processes that use rapid heating or super-heated water to convert organic matter to oil. Flash pyrolysis involves rapid heating (1-2 seconds) of fine material up to 500°C. Thermochemical Conversion uses superheated water to convert organic matter to bio-oil. This may be followed by anhydrous cracking/distillation. The combined process is known as Thermal depolymerization (TDP). Bio-oil can be used as a heating fuel or can be further converted to advanced biofuels.

Torrefaction (heating at 200-300°C in the absence of oxygen, at atmospheric pressure) converts biomass to "bio-coal", which can be more easily used for power generation than untreated biomass.

Biobutanol is an alcohol that can be used as a transport fuel. Each molecule contains four carbon atoms rather than two as in ethanol. It is more compatible with existing fuel infrastructures and engines than ethanol. Novel fermentation techniques are being developed to convert sugars into butanol using modified yeast strains.

Algal biofuels may be produced from macro algae (seaweeds) and microalgae via a range of technologies. A number of projects and pilot plants are now identifying the best types of algae to use and the best production technologies. Algal biofuels have attracted great interest as they do not compete with food crops for land use, but the technology is not yet as mature as that for some other advanced biofuels.

Hydrocarbons via chemical catalysis of plant sugars Chemical catalysis or modified mircorganisms offer great potential for converting sugars into specific fuel molecules including biopetroleum, bio jet fuel and other drop-in fuels, which have very similar properties to their fossil fuel counterparts.

Drop-in biofuels via biotechnology, Synthetic biology, modified metabolism and other techniques are being developed to convert plant sugars to a range of fuels that have similar properties to fossil gasoline or diesel.

Biohydrogen Hydrogen can potentially be produced from biomass via various routes and can be used as a vehicle fuel. Biohydrogen is not currently being produced at significant volumes, but could be an important fuel in the future.

What feedstocks are used for advanced biofuels in Europe? What volumes are available?

In general, advanced biofuels are produced from cellulosic and lignocellulosic materials, such as agricultural and forestry residues or wastes, or energy crops. The aim is to develop energy crops that result in the production of more fuel per unit of land used and require less chemical and energy input for production and harvesting. This results in a higher yield in terms of net GJ energy produced per hectare land used. Preferably, energy crops are grown on marginal land that does not compete directly with (or displace) land used for food crops.

Many availability assessments have been carried out covering a range of biomass feedstocks in Europe. This work is ongoing, but it is clear that to meet the competing demands from different sectors, the efficiency of biomass supply chains in Europe needs to be maximised. A wider range of biomass feedstocks need to be made available through improved logistics. At the same time, feedstock costs need to remain competitive, and sustainabiltiy criteria need to be met.

To make best use of biomass resources in Europe, a co-ordinated approach is required to match the most appropriate feedstocks to the most beneficial end use in the most favourable location.

Are the feedstocks for advanced biofuels sustainable?

An energy balance can be calculated for each advanced biofuel taking into account the type of feedstock, the energy used in fuel production and in transporting the end product. Generally this shows that advanced biofuels offer a great reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) than conventional biofuels. However, there remains competition for land and feedstock between liquid biofuels and the rapidly expanding use for heat and power generation through combustion.

The sustainability of biofuels is covered by the Biofuels Certification Scheme, while projects such as BioGrace and Global-Bio-Pact aim to harmonise the way sustainability of bioenergy and biofuels is calculated and certified. However, the same rules need to be applied to all use of biomass for food and other products. There is limited value in creating sustainable biofuels if unregulated and unsustainable biomass production is allowed for other uses.

At the moment there is a vigorous debate about indirect Land Use Change (iLUC), which is covered in greater detail on the sustainability page of the EBTP website.

What types of transport can advanced biofuels be used for? Are advanced biofuels compatible with existing engines and infrastructures?

R&D&D activities in the EU, US and China and Brazil are demonstrating the potential of a wide range of advanced biofuels for use in road, marine (shipping), and air transport. See the individual pages for further details.

What is the being done to support commercialisation of advanced biofuels technology in Europe?

A wide range of FP7 projects made a significant contribution to the development of advanced biofuels technology in Europe. Links and details are included on research funding page of the EBTP website. This R&D&D is being continued under the "Horizon 2020 - the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation"

The European Industrial Bioenergy Initiative (one of the industrial initiatives under the SET-Plan) aims to have the first commercial plants in operation by 2020 with a focus on advanced biofuels, which could meet 4% of EU transport energy needs, while strengthening EU technology leadership.

The EIBI covers industrial bioenergy projects of European relevance, with the potential of large scale deployment along seven value chains (covering both biochemical and thermochemical technologies, as outlined above). There are two main types of unit:

  • Demonstration Units, which prove the performance of an innovative advanced bioenergy technology and pave the way for
  • Flagship Plants, the first commercial-scale unit

EIBI demonstration units or flagship plants should encompass:

  • a reliable long-term source of feedstock (at a competitive price)
  • a high-performance conversion process
  • and a marketable end-product

Units or plants may adopt a biorefinery approach, but advanced bioenergy or biofuels must be the main output.

The required investment for EIBI is estimated at 9 billion Euros for 2010-2020. In the current economic environment securing investment for any innovative technology is not easy. But there are still possibilities. Significant FP7 financing has helped establish some of the advanced bioenergy technologies. Close-to-market bioenergy and advanced biofuels projects are also included within NER300. Other forms of funding, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, EIB loans, EU Structural funds also offer potential. By sharing risk between industry, governments and among the Member States, advanced biofuels can be commercialised more quickly.

Regulatory support is also required to enable the commercialisation of innovative advanced bioenergy technologies. The EBTP is working with the EC on this, as well as on the identifying the most promising mix of feedstock, technology and end-product.