Student - March 22, 2007

Scientists optimistic about second generation biofuels

In thirteen years’ time, at least ten percent of fuel must be made from biomass. It’s an ambitious plan, but not impossible, was the optimistic view that emerged during the symposium ‘Biobased economy, fuelling the future’, held 20 March in Wageningen. It has become feasible as a result of the rapid developments now taking place in the ‘second generation biofuels’.

Even the usually critical environmental organisations were almost jumping for joy last month when the EU states published their joint climate agreement. This states that by 2020 at least ten percent of fuel must be derived from plant or animal material. It’s an ambitious target, especially since the previous one of two percent by 2005 was not achieved.
Nevertheless, expectations are now high, as research on the second-generation biofuels is progressing rapidly. These fuels are produced from agricultural waste products such as straw, instead of from crops grown specifically for biofuel production, such as canola and palm oil. Whereas previously it was scientists who did research on biofuel, companies are now crying out for plant waste so that they can convert it into energy. ‘The second generation potential is much bigger,’ said invited speaker Minke Noordermeer, a researcher at Shell. New technologies for converting waste products will considerably lower carbon dioxide emissions and also prevent competition with food production, one of the most important arguments against biofuels.
The second speaker was Jan de Bont, director of research and development at the alcohol producing company Royal Nedalco. This company is looking for ways to use alcohol by-products as raw material for biofuels. After a long search for the right enzymes and yeasts, Nedalco is now about to build a factory in which alcohol by-products will be converted into bio-ethanol. Shell has plans for a similar factory.
Those present agreed that this is a good prospect, but there’s a long way to go. The costs are still high, and the scale on which Nedalco will soon produce biofuel is not commercially interesting for a company as big as Shell, said De Bont. Hans Reith, from the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, also warned that the amount of biomass needed is still too high.
‘We still haven’t found the best way,’ was the conclusion of the chairman, Professor Johan Sanders, chair of Valorisation of Plant Production in Chains at Wageningen University. ‘But we’ve only just begun. Nevertheless, it’s an important step that we now have thirteen years in Europe to all pursue the same goal. This way politics is pushing the private sector to do research as well.’

Re:act