Insights: Why advanced fuels can drive decarbonisation
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Insights: Why advanced fuels can drive decarbonisation

Insights: Why advanced fuels can drive decarbonisation

Advanced biofuels, made from plant-based waste material, can help cut carbon emissions in aviation and maritime sectors

Nicholas Ball of Xfuel

It would be short sighted to suggest that there is a single unified answer to the world’s decarbonisation problems. From the electrification of consumer cars to renewable energies, innovative energy storage and advanced fuels, each will play a crucial role on the path to net zero.

However, for the planet to reach net neutrality by 2050 and for us to realistically meet those targets, we need solutions which are actionable and scalable at the present time. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the transport sector contributes approximately one quarter of all energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Advanced fuels – also known as second generation biofuels – are a clear contender to help decarbonise that sector, today.

The importance of feedstock provenance
When speaking of biofuels, it is important to make a clear distinction between the different types of feedstocks used in fuel production.
A feedstock is the raw ingredient used to create a biofuel. For biofuels to fulfill their role and efficiently support the decarbonisation of the transport sector, the feedstock used in clean fuel production must be sustainably sourced, available in abundance and, preferably, locally sourced. This would ensure the fuel’s green credentials, as well as its ability to scale in order to meet current and growing demand.

Traditional, first-generation biofuels have become increasingly problematic due to their reliance on food crops as feedstock. The use of crops means that first generation biofuels have the potential to adversely impact food security as food production finds itself competing with crops for biofuels. This comes in addition to affecting land use, harming biodiversity and, in certain cases, contributing to deforestation. Furthermore, volatile grain commodity markets often impact prices, as seen with the current geopolitical situation with Ukraine and Russia.
Advanced second generation biofuels avoid these limitations by using waste rather than crops as feedstock.

Lignocellulosic waste, the waste of choice
Lignocellulosic biomass is a plant-based material which happens to be the most abundant raw material on earth. Its waste material is not used for food and is the feedstock of choice for advanced fuels.

Lignocellulosic waste can come in the shape of waste from the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, or forestry sectors. It can include the residue, shavings and waste, which are not used when creating everyday home essentials such as a kitchen cabinet, or olive pips and nut shells that are removed from processing agricultural products and which would otherwise be disposed of or incinerated.

According to a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey, new advanced feedstocks will be necessary to meet the growing demand for sustainable fuels. In its analysis of fuel demand by feedstock type, the study found that lignocellulosic waste will account for a third of all sustainable fuel feedstock by 2040.
Beyond their sustainability and scalability potential, advanced fuels already exist in the form of drop-in replacements to their fossil fuel counterparts. This means that the physical and chemical characteristics of such fuels allow them to be used with existing engines and infrastructure, without the need for modification or additional capital.

Not all waste is created equal
Currently, the most widely available second-generation biofuel on the market is hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO). This liquid fuel is derived from waste vegetable oils, such as sunflower or palm oil, and animal fats. These oils are difficult to collect at scale and hence would fail to replace a significant amount of fossil fuels.

What’s more, the limited supply of HVOs has driven prices up considerably, with prices up to 2.5 times higher than pre-2021 levels, analysis by campaign group Transport & Environment has revealed. This has contributed to vegetable oils showing the highest price increases amongst all food products globally, even before the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

When it comes to advancing climate goals on the road to net zero, it is all hands on deck. Yet it is clear that sustainable advanced fuels must play a core role on that journey, by bringing sustainable scalable fuels to the table. They offer a fast and practical solution to decarbonising the transport sector today – this must not be overlooked.

Nicholas Ball is the CEO of XFuel, a company that produces sustainable and net-zero road, marine and aviation drop-in fuels

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