Biofuels: Status Quo and Future Prospects

19 Mar 2015

In recent years, the policies on energy independence and climate change have encouraged development and utilization of renewable energy in the form of bioenergy and biofuels. Biofuels in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms have been extensively researched, produced, and used over the past 15-20 years. It is essential that we regularly review the current status and predictable future trends of bioenergy and biofuels. In this short article, we concentrate only on liquid biofuels. Liquid biofuels cover bioethanol, biodiesel, pyrolysis bio-oil, and drop-in transportation fuels.

Biomass is the sole source for renewable transportation fuels. The global consumption of bioethanol increased from 4.5 billion gallons in 2000 to 21.8 billion gallons in 2012. However, bioethanol has predominantly been made from starch / sugar-rich food crops such as corn and sugar cane. The remarkable technological advances in converting lignocellulosic biomass into simple sugars, specifically in feedstock pre-treatment and in industrial enzyme preparation, eventually resulted in the commercial-scale production of second-generation bioethanol from crop residues in 2013. Commercial production of bioethanol from lignocellulosic materials will supplement the annual supply of 22 billion gallons of 1st Generation bioethanol. It is expected that global bioethanol production and utilization will increase significantly in the near future.

Meanwhile, the world production of biodiesel from oil seeds increased from 213 million gallons in 2000 to 5.7 billion gallons in 2012. However, the further increase depends on development of new feedstock from oil sources, such as cost-effective algal cultivation and oil extraction.

Substantial attempts have also been made in recent years to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels from plant biomass by pyrolysis. More research is needed to develop practical techniques for upgrading crude pyrolysis bio-oil to quality transportation fuels. Other drop-in fuels such as biobutanol and sugar hydrocarbons are being developed to overcome the infrastructure-incompatibility drawbacks of bioethanol and biodiesel. These technologies are yet in the infant and early demonstration stages.

In conclusion, it is evident that the global consumption of bioenergy will continue to increase under the influence of present renewable energy and climate change policies. Biopower (by co-firing), lignocellulosic bioethanol (2nd Generation), and biogas will be the most prosperous bioenergy and renewable sectors with highest growing market potential in the short term. There is a strong indication by the World Energy Council that biofuels will meet 30% of the whole world's energy demand by 2050.

SCI's Biotechnology Group is hosting Biofuels – Hype or Reality? on 28 April in London. The event will provide an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons, opportunities and also challenges that the biofuel process encounters. Join leading researchers from industry and academia as they share the most recent findings related to biofuels.

Namdar Baghaei-Yazdi
SCI Biotechnology Group

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