The world is waking up to biofuels, increasingly produced from food crops and their waste by-products, and now one of the growing energy alternatives to conventional fossil fuels. As prices for traditional energy rise year on year, and energy watchers warn of oil production peaking around 2010, governments are looking towards food producers to grow the raw feedstock for the fuel of the twenty-first century, as Deirdre Mason reports.

Nor will the feedstock always be primary crops. The technology is growing for fuels made from recycled food industry materials such as used vegetable oils and fats.

The European Commission’s head of biotechnology, Christian Paterman, says that his area of expertise, life sciences, will be taking a steadily increasing proportion of the European Union’s (EU) food and agriculture research budget, and that includes non-food uses such as energy production. He told the BCPC (formerly, the British Crop Protection Council) conference in Glasgow, late 2004:

“The [EU’s] research budget will probably be €40bn (US$52.3bn) for 2006-2010. Life sciences have steadily increased as a proportion, and we want to be ready to start in November 2006. We will promote use (of crops) for non-food applications for health, industry and energy as well as agriculture and horticulture.”

Unilateral tax incentives

Already, many European countries are offering tax incentives. In 2000, Austria lifted mineral oil taxes from fuels made from renewable raw materials. Belgium, Finland and France also offer tax incentives, making a switch more attractive to business. That, in turn, opens up opportunities for those prepared to produce the raw materials for biofuels.

Two key biofuels are VOME (vegetable oil methyl esters produced from vegetable oils derived from plants such as rapeseed, and used to produce biodiesel) and ethanol, produced from wheat or corn and from sucrose-producing plants such as sugar cane and sugar beet. According to the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), Germany has become Europe’s foremost VOME producer and consumer, producing around 450,000 tons a year. France, however, is catching up, with its forecast production for last year at 387,000 tonnes. Italy, Austria and Sweden are also major players, and the EBB sees prospects for the newest EU members in eastern and southern Europe, Poland in particular. Meanwhile, Austria, it says, is experimenting with producing VOME from used vegetable oil.

Enzymes to produce ethanol

Elsewhere, Danish company Novozymes has developed enzymes that help break down the biomass to produce ethanol. It sees a potentially huge global market opening up for biofuel and has looked across the Atlantic for inspiration, as the USA expects to double its current annual production to 23 billion litres of ethanol by 2010. Conservative estimates suggest that biomass in the USA is sufficient to produce between 80 and 115 billion litres of ethanol a year. This, says Novozymes, would represent a gasoline (petrol) substitution of 15-20%.

Developing countries are getting in on the act too, with China, now producing 0.4 billion litres, expected to expand to 1.2 billion litres of ethanol. Meanwhile, Europe’s present production of fuel ethanol is 0.7 billion litres – a low production rate because the EU does not produce corn in sufficient quantities – but the recent EU directive promoting the production of biofuels has set a target of 20% of fuel used in 2020 to be from alternative sources such as biofuels.

Novozymes chief executive officer Steen Riisgaard, says: “There is untold potential. We have barely scratched the surface. We plan on growing much bigger. We improve people’s lives when we use enzymes to replace harsh chemicals, or to turn surplus corn into ethanol for fuel.”

US watching German progress with interest

The USA is keeping a close eye on biofuel trends in Europe. In the EU, biodiesel has proved more popular with producers, with Germany ahead by miles.

Krysta Harden, the American Soybean Association’s Washington representative, says: “Clearly, German farmers are six to ten years ahead of us on production and use. But, we may be catching up soon.”

In 1991, Germany burned 200 million gallons of biodiesel. In 2003, that figure rose to 500 million gallons, and is set to hit 750 million gallons this year. Most of the oil used by EU countries is derived from rapeseed, but with some soybean oil blended in.

Indian nuts

In the Far East, Malaysia and Indonesia are also becoming players in the biodiesel market by basing it on palm oil. India, too, is looking towards biofuels as a way to meeting at least part of its energy needs. Brook and Gaurav Bhagat, writers and independent filmmakers based in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, describe the potential for using jatropha, the physic nut, to produce biodiesel.

Writing for Ecoworld, they say: “Per hectare, yields vary from 0.5 to 12 tons/year, depending on soil and rainfall conditions. An average of five tons of seeds per hectare can be produced under optimum conditions. The oil content of the seed is 55-60%.” Jatropha, the authors say, is drought-resistant and can grow in saline, marginal and even otherwise infertile soil, needing little water and maintenance. It is a robust plant, and easy to propagate.

Incentive for corn growers

Corn growers in the USA, however, have just had a significant incentive from Washington for turning to biofuel production. The country has no problem with food shortages – a gloomy estimate from the University of Arizona puts food wasted by American retailers and consumers as roughly half of the harvest. So, the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) gave a warm welcome in October this year (2004) to the passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Strength (JOBS) Act, which includes key provisions for ethanol and biodiesel.

ACGA president Keith Bolin, a corn and pig producer from Manlius, Illinois, explains what this means for American corn producers: “Provisions attached to the JOBS Act extend the ethanol production inventive through 2010, simplify the incentive with the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and extend the Production Tax Credit for wind and biomass-generated electricity.” VEETC will add as much as US$2bn to the Highway Trust Fund, simplify the system used to implement the incentive and make all ethanol eligible for tax credit.

These incentives, he said, would help corn growers to build the farm-to-market road for the new energy sources.

There is room for the smaller player, too. Piedmont Biofuels is a worker and member-owned co-operative based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. It provides pure biodiesel to co-op members from a mobile retail pump on the back of a 1,600 gallon tank truck. It makes non-commercial biodiesel for research in a 150-gallon batch reactor on its own premises, using among other ingredients waste vegetable oil collected from local restaurants. Piedmont also converts vehicles to run on straight vegetable oil. Local government in North Carolina is backing the Piedmont project by switching its own vehicle fleets to biofuels and encouraging the community to use biofuels.