Urbanization, population growth, and an increasingly mobile culture are driving big demands for the grid of the future. And while there’s no longer any question that a sustainable global energy system needs to be lower carbon, it also needs to deliver more energy to meet those expectations. As part of a renewable energy driven future, biofuels make a lot of sense: they’re cheap and burn much cleaner than fossil fuels.
The extent and timing of the role biofuels will play in that future is being defined today. Bioenergy accounts for roughly 10% of the world’s energy supply, and scientists are moving past a first-generation of biofuels toward advanced biofuels: second and third generation fuels comprised of truly sustainable materials that have the potential to fundamentally alter the clean energy market.
Chemists and engineers know how to convert all kinds of matter into burning fuel, and humans have been fermenting ethanol for thousands of years. That process is at the heart of producing first-generation biofuel, which takes carbon from plants and converts it into fuel that drives engines from cars to jet planes.
Plant carbon comes from its sugars, which have long been distilled into fuel and used in vehicles dating back to the Model T. Henry Ford himself envisioned a future marked by widespread use of ethanol—corn was abundant and easy to grow. Ultimately, though ethanol comprises 10% of the total volume of motor gasoline and fuels over 2,000,000 alternative fuel vehicles in the US, Ford’s hopes of a renewable fuel supply proved too optimistic.
Henry Ford’s excitement was understandable. The prospective benefits of biofuels were stirring, even then. But first-generation biofuels have their downside. Ethanol is made from plants rich in starch or sugar, and crops that fit the bill—like corn in the US, and sugarcane in Brazil—are used heavily in human foods and as feed for livestock. Because of high demand, tweaks to corn and sugar crops can ripple across commodity prices and impact food supply.
What’s more, corn uses more land than any other crop: In 2013, 40% of corn crops in the US were earmarked for ethanol—that’s a landmass (60,000 square miles) about twice the size of Portugal. Plus, harvesting corn reduces crop diversity and its fertilizer can sully water resources.
Because debate around the prudence of growing corn for ethanol is fraught with implication, over the last decade governments, legacy energy companies, and a host of aspirant tech startups have converged to tackle inefficiencies in biofuel production. They’re committed to solving these food and land-use issues by accelerating production of advanced biofuels.
One way to do that is to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass instead of corn. This means converting non-food crops, agricultural waste, wood chips, and even algae into simple plant sugars to be used in biofuel production. The first challenge is finding a way to transform the potentially endless supply of plant biomass into a source of renewable energy—no easy task. The next is to be able to make money doing it efficiently. To do that would completely change the clean energy market.
Shell is close to achieving this. Raízen—a Shell joint venture with Cosan—is one of Brazil’s largest sugarcane based producers of ethanol. Typically, leftover cane stalks are burned to produce power for its mills, with any excess power pumped to the national grid. In fact, by 2012, electricity sourced from the leftover biomass already supplied 3% of Brazil’s demand, with expectations that it will meet 18% by 2020.
Last year, Shell’s joint venture in the country launched its first second-generation ethanol plant which will convert biomass waste from its sugarcane production into advanced biofuel. Output from the plant is predicted to produce 38 million liters of cellulosic ethanol a year. And with the first- and second-generation plants working in tandem, the process is streamlined, helping to increase yield and cut costs for both plants.
That kind of scalability will make advanced biofuels a real, cost-effective solution. Forty percent of Brazil’s demand for petroleum has been replaced by sugarcane ethanol, and the joint venture plans on investing in similar technology in another seven mills over the next several years.
“We’re convinced advanced biofuels will be a critical part of our transport fuels portfolio,” says Matthew Tipper, VP of Alternative Energies at Shell. “Importantly, advanced biofuels could ultimately supply a significant part, perhaps all, of Europe’s transport fuels needs. So we have big plans.”
The implications for the global energy market are truly remarkable. Cellulosic biofuel has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by around 86% compared to standard petroleum. And when derived from cellulosic by-products, biomass will increase biofuel production by 50% without needing to plant any more corn crops for ethanol. This eliminates the land for food conundrum.
Big plans indeed.
This article was produced on behalf of Shell by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.