A restart for biofuels?
Biofuels have had a rough ride over the past few years. They had been seen as a solution to the ever-growing issue of oil use, but tales of forests hacked down for crop land and animals displaced blotted their image.
However, perhaps their time is to come again. Currently, biofuels make up around 3% of transport fuels worldwide, and by 2030, fuel giant BP expects this to increase to 9%. As a result, it has launched three new biofuels in time to trial them in 100 cars in BMW’s Olympic fleet, and it believes these more environmentally-friendly, sustainable products have a future.
BP’s initiative, “biofuels done well” is intended to change the way biofuels are seen, and it is trialling cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and sugar-to-diesel fuels. Each of these will be blended with regular fuel and work with standard engines, meaning there is no need to replace filters, or pumps, or change any component. Biofuels will be blended with regular petrol and diesel.They are created from biomass and agricultural waste products, and offer lower carbon alternatives to regular fuels.
BP’s cellulosic ethanol is made from high-energy grasses, grown in the southern United States. The company has, over the last six years, acquired expertise in unlocking sugars to make fuels from these grasses. The plants are grown on low-grade land, and are able to be quickly harvested, producing four-times as many gallons of ethanol per hectare as tradition corn-based biofuels. This makes them sustainable, and environmentally friendly. The end result is a blended fuel with an octane level of 103, the company’s highest ever.
Biobutanol is BP’s “game changer”, a biofuel which offers lower carbon emissions and allows for drivers to travel further, achieving more miles-per-gallon than other biofuel blends. This too is made using extracted sugars, which are fermented using special microorganisms. It can be blended at higher concentrations than ethanol in gasoline, meaning drivers can use more of it, thus reducing emissions.
Sugar to diesel
Sugar to diesel allows for plant sugars to be used to produce synthetic oils which can be mixed with diesel. Currently, the most well-known biofuels are those derived from vegetable oils, however, sugar-to-diesel allows for sugar cane to be harvested, crushed, and sugars extracted to make bio-oil, which is then converted to diesel. It can offer up to a 60% carbon reduction compared to regular fossil fuels.
However, while being trialled, there are still challenges to be overcome before the fuels can go on sale in the UK. Manufacturing needs to be fully established – something BP is working on with a new fuel processing plant in Louisiana. There are also EU policy challenges to overcome, which recommend the amount of ethanol which can be blended with petrol and diesel. However, BP estimate that cellulosic ethanol and biobutanol will be ready to sell by 2014, with sugar-to-diesel taking longer due to manufacturing costs, with the need to reduce price before it hits the pumps. For fleet managers, they will add to a company’s image of being environmentally friendly, as well as improving the range per tank of vehicles.
Q&A with Phil New, CEO of BP Biofuels, and Jackie Fionda, VP Fuels Marketing at BP.
How important are biofuels?
Phil New: We believe biofuels are very important. There is a need for carbon reduction and environmentally friendly methods of travel, and biofuel offers the only option that allows for this while retaining the level of automation that we are used to. No one solution will provide all the answers.
Why the decision to trial the fuels in the 2012 Olympic fleet?
Phil New: The Olympics allow us to show that these fuels are not just the future, they are now. It’s a large showcase which we can use to show the world what is coming, and also what the fuels mean, being used in regular cars, and not modified in any way.
Biofuels has attracted controversy for not being as green as claimed. What are you doing differently?
Phil New: BP is working on ”biofuels done well”. We believe they have to be sustainable, and affordable. Our technology programs are looking at how to create higher quality biofuels from sustainable grasses, rather than using food crops, as has been suggested in the past. Not only will our approach keep these crops for food, but our super energy grasses can be grown quickly and efficiently, producing more fuels over a year.
Apart from the obvious benefits, how else do biofuels aid vehicle engines?
Jackie Fionda: The products we are trialling with the Olympic fleet are blended with BP Ultimate, which lubricates and cleans the engine as it works.
How does BP work with car manufacturers to ensure the fuels work with engines?
Jackie Fionda: We work very closely with the car manufacturer industry to ensure that our fuels work with their engines. We’ve worked with BMW to ensure the fuels will work well and deliver the best performance. In terms of smaller engines, our biofuels can work well, producing a duel MPG gain with lower carbon emissions, such as the Ford Ecoboost 1.0-litre engine. They will require more from the fuels as they work harder.