a division of NEPIC

Biofuels Industry

In broad terms there are three main driving forces for the development of biofuels:

  • Onset of climate change and resulting regulation and incentivisation
  • The world’s reserves of crude fossil fuels are finite
  • Energy security as reserves are located outside the developed world

The Renewable Energy Directive commits the European Union to achieve a legally binding target of 20% renewable energy by 2020 with a sub target to achieve a minimum 10% renewable energy in transport by 2020.

Renewable Fuels in the North East

The North East of England has seen significant levels of investment activity in recent years in the fields of biofuels and biomass. This has been driven by the co-location of large-scale petrochemical industry and an extensive agricultural hinterland. Biofuels Corporation started up a 250,000 tonne/year biodiesel plant in 2006 and today, this asset is operated by Harvest Energy, who continue to invest in terminal and forecourt infrastructure. Four Rivers Inc has acquired a site at Bedlington Northumberland and developing an integrated waste to energy plant. Ensus Group has built and commissioned a 400million litre bioethanol plant at Wilton, the largest wheat based biorefuinery in Europe. The refinery also produces a high protein DDGS animal feed and liquid carbon dioxide for the food and beverage industry. Sembcorp opened their 30 MW wood biomass power plant in October 2007 consuming a range of biomass material including recycled wood. Ineos Bio have announced plans for a waste to ethanol plant using industrial biotechnology, Air Products have announced a project to produce renewable hydrogen from gasification of waste and PYReco have announced plans to produce a pyrolsis oil and carbon black from waste tyres. To compliment this activity, Graphite Resources offer steam autoclaving as an effective solution for the safe treatment of waste and Premier Waste with a complete waste and recycling service. Storage and logistics supply chains are enhanced courtesy of A.V Dawson Vopak and Simon Storage, all of whom have made substantial investments in biofuels. This is a very sizeable level of activity in both a UK and European context.

How much Biofuel can be produced?

The answers today depend in part on how much land is available, the yield available from that land, and the range of differing feed stocks utilised. The starting point is that biofuels consume around 1% of the worlds arable crops today (OECD/FAO, 2007). Many estimates have been made of the proportion of the worlds transport fuel production that could be replaced with biofuels. These estimates often use different assumptions and generally assume no improvements in crop yields and no advancement in production technology. Across the world, 45 million hectares of land has been taken out of production since the 1990’s including 7 million hectares in Europe under the set-aside scheme. It is estimated that by 2040 the availability of arable land in the European Union for non-food crops will be 33 million hectares - sufficient to supply 11% of today’s transport fuel consumption based on current technology.

From an agricultural perspective, biofuels offer farmers an additional market opportunity allowing growth in crops in which the region can lead the world, such as high starch wheat and rapeseed. An additional benefit for growers is that the biofuel market can use grain and oilseed which has resulted from poor growing conditions, when it would otherwise be rejected by the food industry.

In addition new technologies are coming on stream which offer the possibility of turning non food biomass and wastes into fuels which will provide significant additional capacity for renewable fuels.

Emissions and co-products

The case for biofuels being close to carbon neutral is based on the fact the crops from which they are made consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during growth, this is then released again when the biofuels is used in a vehicle. Measurement of emissions or greenhouse gas (ghg) savings associated with biofuel can differ dependent upon the method of calculation and also which feedstock is used. Work is ongoing to develop an international consensus on the most appropriate method of ghg calculation.

In determining ghg emissions, energy inputs such as fertiliser manufacture, crop harvesting, transportation, biomass processing are taken into account. In the case of valuable co-products being produced eg dried distillers grain with solubles (DDGS) high protein animal feed from the refining of wheat to bioethanol, impact on land use change can be minimised. The European Union imports significant volumes of animal feed protein from other parts of the world because it is only approximately 20% self sufficient in protein. This is due in a large part to the high meat content in the European diet. Increasing production of animal feed from UK biofuel production will decrease UK dependency on imported products, some of which is soy based which could have sustainability issues dependent upon where it is grown. Consequently, the production of biofuels in Europe and associated co-products will take pressure off land in developing countries. These co-products can also be used as a fuel source.

Technology Development

There are a number of areas from which there is potential for new technology to improve the environmental footprint. NEPIC together with NEB have created a grower network aimed at increasing crop yield and overall grain and oil content for local growers for a given set of inputs. Increasingly the biofuels industry talks about using the whole crop and making beneficial use of all the by-products from the production process. Looking at the wheat bioethanol chain, for example, the wheat straw is useful biomass which can be used to produce heat and power or as an animal feed.

Glycerol from biodiesel manufacture has many uses including as a fuel. High temperature processes such as pyrolysis and gasification are referred to as advanced technologies. Pyrolysis (thermal decomposition of biomass in the absence of air) produces a pyrolysis oil which can serve as a fuel source, but also a charcoal like material called bio-char which can be crushed and dug into the soil to improve soil fertility, reduce nitrous oxide emissions and assist with water retention whilst keeping the carbon long term within the soil because the bio-char is largely resistant to decomposition. Gasification is a process that converts biomass materials at high temperature, into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, known as synthesis or syngas. The syngas can be used to synthesise longer chain hydrocarbons using technology such as Fischer Tropsch. Potential products are diesel, alcohols or jet fuel in the form of biokerosene. 

Opportunities for the UK and North East England

A report was published in December 2010 entitled North East Business Opportunities from Biomass and Waste based materials and is housed on this website under the Industry Reports link. North East England, and the Tees Valley region in particular, is seeking to develop from an existing fossil fuel petrochemical based industry, to a more hybrid industry that uses a combination of fossil, bio and waste materials. The region has a vision of becoming an internationally significant hub for the biofuel and renewable energy industries. This document depicts the current position of North East England with its practical assets and technology capability, and sets outs a road map to help attract and encourage investment that will allow
the region to achieve its aforementioned vision.

North East Bioresources & Renewables, c/o NEPIC, Room H224, Wilton Centre, Wilton, Redcar, TS10 4RF | T +44 (0) 1642 442 560