The production of bioethanol based on woody plant materials (so-called second-generation biofuels) will grow by over 50% a year over the next five years according to a new report by Innovation Observatory.
But the report – “Second Generation Biofuels: Companies, Technologies and Market Prospects” – warns against overselling the environmental benefits of biofuels to policy makers. Continued public-sector support is still needed to overcome technical and commercial challenges to large-scale production, so messages must emphasize the work to be done to make second-generation biofuels competitive, as well as the potential benefits.
Conventional biofuels (bioethanol and biodiesel) based on sugary / starchy and oil crops have come in for criticism in recent years as concern has been raised about the environmental impact of growing crops to produce them. Second-generation biofuel feedstocks including waste plant matter and woody crops (lignocellulosic feedstocks) have been difficult to process cost-effectively.
The report shows that significant progress is being made in commercialising lignocellulosic biofuels – in areas such as understanding the economics of feedstock collection and logistics processes, and developing more efficient processing methods that can scale appropriately.
“A huge amount of development effort has been put into overcoming the technical challenges of converting woody biomass into transportation fuels – both using enzymes (the biochemical route) and heat (the thermochemical route),” explains report editor Danny Dicks. The report concludes that both pathways are likely to continue to be developed – though biochemical routes are currently closer to large-scale commercialization.
The report identifies the importance of partnerships between organisations in the supply chain and involving multiple layers of public sector support, to help to bring the technology to commercialization. That point has been reached in some cases (for instance, production of industrial vehicle fuel for the Scandinavian forestry industry) and is very close for larger-scale production (e.g., using maize plant waste to increase the efficiency, yield and environmental credentials in the US ethanol industry).