circular economy transport

Transport innovation of the week: biofuel from agricultural waste

So far I haven’t written much about biofuels in my series on transport. That’s because the jury is still out on whether biofuels can make a genuine contribution to sustainable transport.

The technology is all there – Brazil has been using ethanol for forty years. The trouble is that the crops that make the best biofuels are also foods: sugarcane, corn, or vegetable oils. When demand for these biofuels rises, it competes with those who want to buy them as food. This was a contributing factor to the food price spikes in 2008, which saw food riots in many parts of the world while others burned food as fuel in their cars.

We’ve known since then that biofuels from foodstuffs can’t be ethical and don’t deserve our support. But we do know that there are other things that could provide a feedstock – grass, wood, or agricultural waste products such as straw. These are known as second generation biofuels, and we’ve been waiting patiently for them. (There are third generation fuels such as algae and seaweed, as I wrote about earlier this year, and theoretical fourth gen biofuels too.) Finally, they are beginning to reach the market.

A couple of years ago a plant opened in Brazil that uses bagasse, the leftovers from sugar cane, to make fuels. Last week a company called Clariant announced that they were going to build a plant to start commercial production of their Sunliquid biofuel. The facility will be in Romania, and it will source straw and other post-harvest waste from local farmers, and turn it into an almost zero-carbon biofuel.

Nothing comes for free, and if it were to catch on, biofuels like Sunliquid could hoover up a lot of post-harvest waste. It would then no longer be available for other purposes, such as compost. We need to keep adding organic matter to the soil as part of sustainable soil stewardship, so we don’t want to go too far down this road. But for now, this is a useful circular economy business that uses a waste product to erode the dominance of fossil fuels. Until we can produce biofuels from algae, seaweed, or even directly from sunlight, it’ll do nicely.

Here’s the corporate video showing the process:

Feature image by Simon Caminada


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