Biofuels: ‘We are nowhere near an economic solution’


Carlos Cabrera, president and CEO of the Honeywell-owned company UOP – which has specialised in developing processes and technologies for refining crude oil for the past 90 years – told EURACTIV why he believes policymakers should shift their attention to second-generation biofuels if they want to substantially reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector.

To read a shortened version of the interview with Carlos Cabrera, please click here.


Why all the fuss about biofuels now? 

The fundamental reason why there is a great interest in biofuels today comes from three main sources of demand, I believe. 

The first and probably the foremost is that the United States is very interested in diversifying its dependency on petroleum from sources that they consider at risk. Being a large net importer of petroleum – and with petroleum coming from some nations that are hostile to the United States – there is a huge emphasis on producing fuels from something other than petroleum. So that is one main change. 

Another reason – which is probably longer-lasting in the sense that it arose before national security concerns – is the fact that there is a carbon balance in the production of CO2. If you can efficiently take things from the plant kingdom and convert them to a fuel, you can reduce the amount of CO2 that you put into the atmosphere and contribute to fighting climate change. 

The third thrust is that many of the countries in the developing world do not have an industrial advantage over the developed world, so they are seeking an industry where they can bring a comparative advantage – notably in producing agricultural goods that can then be converted into fuels. 

And then, there may be a fourth factor at play, which is that, because the fuel industry is so large and profitable, anybody who has the capability to participate in that market tries to do so. In the United States, there has been a very long subsidy for corn growers to bring ethanol into the fuel market. 

So I think that those are the main characteristics or main drivers. What is happening now is just that it has become much more intense, because all of these things are happening at the same time. The developing world wants a greater share of the economic activity. The geopolitical situation is getting worse. The political environment in the United States favours subsidies to certain sectors of the economy to bring fuels in. And, probably the strongest long-term concern is reducing CO2 levels. 

Where exactly do we stand on the development of biofuels? 

First, it is important to understand what first-generation and second-generation biofuels are. 

We, at UOP, think of first-generation fuels as technology that is available today, which uses feed stocks to make the end product. In other words, the production of gasoline or diesel from feed stocks that today compete with food. For example, in the case of Europe, it is rapeseed. In the case of Brazil, it is sugar cane. In the cases of Malaysia, Indonesia, Colombia and Ecuador, it is palm oil. 

As I mentioned, these technologies are available today. For example, you can make ethanol, which goes into gasoline. You can make either biodiesel or green diesel, which goes into diesel by using vegetable oils. 

We think of second-generation as being able to move away from this dependency on feed stocks that compete with food. So, that includes ligno-cellulosic waste, which means leaves, tree bark – all things in the agricultural sector that are not used for food. And then we also look at some edible oils. But truly, in the long term, second-generation or beyond should be something that does not compete for arable land – and here we think of, for example, the conversion of algal materials, which grow in brackish water and water, into fuels or chemicals. 

We believe that first-generation biofuels should merely be seen as a stepping stone towards the development of second-generation, because first-generation biofuels will never be available on the necessary scale, without causing huge problems in terms of food supply. I mean, first-generation biofuels will have a very small impact on fuel compared to the impact they will have on food supply. Also first-generation will not be sustainable in terms of water and land use and will lead to a loss of biodiversity and deforestation, which in the long run, will cause an increase in CO2. 

So second-generation, I would say, are the future, but we first will need many more technological breakthroughs. 

Where do we stand with the development of these second-generation biofuels? 

I would say that we are at the very beginning. 

So these are not yet something that exist and that are in use? 

No, not on an industrial scale. There are certain small experimental plants, which are trying to determine the viability of these biofuels – both in terms of the characteristics of the fuels produced and of the efficiencies of the processes to convert them. 

But both the technologies and the logistics are still at a very early stage. In the case of ligno-cellulosic waste, you would need to collect billions of leaves, so you need to have the infrastructure to collect all the agricultural waste, all the stock, all the grass that does not get used, etc, and bring it to some centre that processes it. 

We have done some work, but we are nowhere near an economic solution. 

Could you tell us what sort of processes you are working on? 

Sure. Firstly – just think of oil. Oil comes out black, dirty and heavy – you have seen the spills. What we do with that oil is that we make it light, clean, and amenable to be burned as a fuel. 

All those processes of transformation – from the very heavy junk to things that are more utilisable and transportable like gasoline and diesel – use a set of chemical transformations – catalysis – as well as high temperatures and controlled pressure levels. 

It is the same thing with bio-waste. We would take leaves, bark, switch grass or any substance of a biological nature or a plant nature, and we would look at its chemical structure. And we know the chemical structures that are good for gasoline and diesel, so we carry out research to investigate how we can chemically transform those leaves and those barks into gasoline and diesel. 

Now, the irony of the whole thing is that oil itself is created by the degradation of vegetable plants over thousands of years. As leaves, trees and other organic substances and animals decay, they produce oil, which sits underground for hundreds of years. So, what we are trying to do is accelerate that transformation, and the way to do that is by using so-called catalysis – which really means making something out of something else at a very fast rate. 

So we look at molecular and chemical structures and whether we have any hope of altering them. 

It is a very difficult problem. In the case of biodiesel, the job is made easier because we already start with the finished oil. We take the oils out of the plant, so the plant has done the job for us. With waste though, we even have to create the oils that do not come naturally to us out of the waste, so that’s the kind of research we are doing now. 

Do you envisage a certain timeline for the commercial viability of second-generation biofuels? 

When you ask a technologist that question he tells you that he will give you his best guess, and non-technical people get very nervous, because they think that technical people should know everything. But we are like any other person – we do not know everything. 

I would say that a good, solid, viable technology, which is commercially demonstrated, and is of the scale to make an impact in the transportation sector, is probably a good five to ten years away. 

Why is it taking so much time? 

Because it is a very difficult problem; reversing nature is not simple, even if you could do it! 

The greatest neutral recycler of CO2 is forest. So, what we are trying to do is pick up whatever we do not use or consume today in order to make fuels. But the composition of these materials is far from ideal. You need to do lots of chemical transformations, either in a biological way, or via fermentation or other routes. 

If you think about it, the oil industry has been available for about a hundred years and, although significant advances started in the 1940s, it was not until the 1990s that the technologies were there. And, we are still developing new things. 

Unfortunately, technology is unpredictable. Sometimes you have breakthroughs, and sometimes you do not. 

But the real reason why I think that it is taking so long is because quite frankly there are no incentives yet, there is not an economic return. People have to take resources from other places to invest in these technologies, for which the outcome is uncertain at this point in time. And the investments needed are very large. It is a difficult problem. 

Talking about incentives – should there be more incentives at EU level? 

There are many incentives in the US, most of which come from the government, because it is high-risk. Some sectors of the industry will make very high-risk investments, but the fact of the matter is that there are alternatives today. So, if there is a political imperative to go away from something which is more economic, better and available today, then government begins to fund high-risk investments. 

The US Department of Energy is now investing through industrial partnerships with companies – including our own – to put money into taking a look at these. I also understand that the European Community is beginning to put money into research-type activities where they would fund private industry to do so. 

As for whether there should be more, as a technical person, and a believer in research, the obvious answer to that question is probably ‘Yes’. But you have to be careful – it is not only the amount of money, you also have to have some innovation. Historically, the companies that spend the most on R&D are not necessarily always successful. So it is not only a matter of money, it is also a matter of luck. But then again, maybe you do not create knowledge unless you put in enough resources. So, you need enough critical mass, and I think that that critical mass is just beginning to develop. If governments really want this to happen, we will need two or three times the level of investment than what we have today. 

You were saying that the US is already investing a lot in second-generation technologies. Apparently, it will be investing $1 billion this year. This appears huge compared to what the EU invests. So, do you think that the EU can compete with the US on second-generation biofuels? 

I do not know. It could take one Italian scientist with a $100 budget who may have a breakthrough, and the US could spend $1 billion, so I do not think that money is a guarantee. What’s also important is how you lay out the incentives and how you create the opportunities for people to realise their potential. Sometimes you are very surprised that, on very low budgets, people can innovate, and on very high budgets people do not innovate. So I think that it is more than money. The key is canvassing and capitalising on all aspects of what it takes to make scientific discoveries. 

There is also talk about the use of biotechnology, for developing new plants or processes. Can you tell us a bit more about this? In the EU there is generally a resistance to biotechnology and GMOs. Could this hold it back in any way on biofuels? 

Our company has no expertise in the area of biotechnology. We wish we did, but our core competency is not in that particular area. So basically what I will share with you is my view. 

The question of converting materials into something else starts with the fundamental question: ‘What does the material look like and how amenable or feasible is it to make something else out of it?’ 

Unless we do any alterations to the native plant that we are dealing with, then we are basically fixed on the feed – we have to do everything from what is given to us. 

There is no question that biotechnology – if successful – can have a great impact, because you could then fundamentally change the characteristics of the product that you start with. 

Now, that also brings substantial moral and ethical questions, as well as consequences which are more difficult to predict, because when you begin to alter the way things grow or the way things reproduce, scientists think that they have control of things, but a life-cycle is very complicated, and there are many kinds of unintended consequences of altering crops or the basic biochemical processes through which crops are generated. 

As a scientist, I would tell you: ‘Yes, it should be looked at, because it would make life a lot easier if you started with something which is better than what you have today.’ But, from the broader perspective, before we begin to embark on that, I think that it is very important that full life-cycle analysis of the consequences be done. And if there is any experimentation to be done, it should be narrow and targeted, because you do not really want to alter basic reproductive processes and have to face unintended consequences – whether in the animal kingdom or the plant kingdom. That is my view. 

To conclude, in the long term, what impact do you think the development of biofuels and second-generation biofuels can have on reducing CO2 emissions from transport and fighting climate change? 

I wish that I could give you a precise number. At the end of the day, you are working in a carbon-neutral situation, because you are starting with something that has already been recycled – from a CO2 perspective. Everything that you use started in the vegetable kingdom and has already had a recycle. So, the effects on the carbon side – the CO2 side – are enormous. How big? A one-third reduction or half reduction of transport’s CO2 emissions is possible. 

I think that the limits will not be determined by the effect that the fuel has, but the amounts of fuel that you can produce from waste. And that’s the scale problem: The amount of oil that gets consumed and refined every day is greater than the potential of the existing agricultural sector to supply it. For example, if you wanted to produce 10% of the diesel fuel in Europe with biofuels, then you would have to plant rapeseed in all of Germany and all of Belgium.

Unless we go for the waste: If we go for the waste, then I think that there could be a substantial reduction. Half, maybe, two-thirds of CO2 emissions in the transport sector. 

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