Monday, 20 June 2011


The possibility of using fuels derived from crops and other biological sources - so called "BioFuels" for transport applications is very much in the news at the moment. This three part post aims to have a look at some of the positive and negative aspects of Biofuel production, with a final part asking some questions and trying to put the information gained to some useful use.

This post was initially provoked by a fascinating public lecture at Nottingham University recently. Part of a series of lectures from the Midlands branch of the British Science Association, this particular event was titled "Biofuels - what are they and where are they taking us?" and presented by Dr Roger Ibbett who is a researcher in this area.

Dr Ibbett classified the various Biofuel technologies as being First, Second or Third generation.

First Generation Biofuels are derived from plant materials such as sugar beet, sugar cane, corn starch and wheat starch - i.e. plants that would otherwise be used as food. First generation Biofuel plants are already up and running in the UK, with British Sugar producing 70million litres of ethanol per year from 650,000 tones of sugar beet. A by-product of the process, CO2, is supplied to local greenhouses. One aspect of biofuel production that needs to be borne in mind is that the process of biofuel manufacture itself required energy, and if the amount of energy is too high then the whole process becomes self-defeating. Other biofuel plants in the UK include a Vivergo grain ethanol plant in Hull (420 million litres of bioethanol p.a), an Ensus bioethanol plant in Teeside (400 million litres of bioethanol p.a. - plant not yet operational). Biodiesel plants can also be found at Immingham (300 million litres of biodiesel p.a) and Teeside (375 million litres of biodiesel p.a). A significant fraction of the feedstock for these bio-diesel plants is waste cooking oil. Currently, the UK's transport fuels in the UK are 3.3% renewable.

Second Generation Biofuels are derived from non-food agricultural crops, such as wheat straw, corn stover or willow coppice. It is much harder to convert these to fuels than with the sugary/starchy drops used for First Gen Biofuels. There are currently no second generation biofuel plants in operation in the UK.

Third generation Biofuels are very much at the initial research stage and include technologies such as fuel from algae.

The talk went on to describe how US projections suggested that by 2050 biofuels could, if all planned technologies come on stream, comprise perhaps 10% of the liquid fuels market - and this is a market that will have grown by some 50% in the meantime. So biofuels are clearly not the complete answer, but are part of the solution - in combination with more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrid/electric drivetrains etc.

BFTF certainly found the talk to be food for thought, and did a little research on the Intranet later. This revealed that Brazil and USA accounted for some 88% of world biofuel production in 2010 with the Brazilian bioethanol being produced using state-of-the-art processs with sugar cane as the feedstock. The cane stalks, leaves etc were burnt separately to produce heating. All Brazilian vehicles now run on fuel that contains a minimum of 20% bioethanol (some vehicles run on 100% bioethanol).

A well timed article in the 21May2011 issue of the New Scientist, described for 3rd generation biofuels are attracting serious investment. Exxon-Mobil has committed some $600million to developing algal biofuels with gene sequencing pioneer Craig Ventner while a number of other companies such as Joule Unlimited and LS9 are at the pilot plant stage, with plans for large plants being drawn up for the future.

Taking a somewhat different approach to biofuel generation, Action Aid report that the 30million tonnes of agricultural manure and food waste each year is capable of generating sufficient methane to meet 16% of transport fuel demand, and that so-called "Biogas" fuelled vehicles are becoming widely used in a number of countries, with Germany having installed some 800 gas filling stations by 2008.

On any topic, one source of information that is often overlooked is the government. In the case of biofuels there is something of a "mother lode" of relevant information and consultation at the "" website (see link below). BFTF is often surprised by how much useful information can be found on governement websites, and it is surprising how (seemingly) evenhanded the information can be. . .

On the other hand, there are some potential issues with the use of Biofuels....

One aspect of Biofuel production that needs to be borne in mind is that it can be easy for production of the crop feedstocks to take up land that was previously used to produce crops for food, or to result in clearances of natural forest to make way for feedstock plantations. Occurrences of this latter phenomena have been widely (reported).BFTF also found a report from the International Energy Authority (IEA) which, with charming optimism, suggests a "roadmap" that may result in biofuels comprising some 28% of transports liquid fuel needs by 2050.

The 2008 Gallagher report, commissioned by the government, looked specifically at the indirect effects of biofuel production (i.e. if biofuels are grown insted of crops, where are the crops grown?). Although data was limited, the report concluded that "there is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry but that feedstock production must avoid agricultural land that would otherwise be used for food production. This is because the displacement of existing agricultural production, due to biofuel demand, is accelerating land-use change and, if left unchecked, will reduce biodiversity and may even cause greenhouse gas emissions rather than savings."

In order to ensure that biofuels were truly from sustainable sources, Gallagher recommended that the rate of biofuel introduction should be slowed down. Care also needs to be taken with second generation technologies as some of these require larger areas of land to produce a unit of fuel, and thus have an increased risk of displacing food production to land that was previously not cultivated.

Somewhat worryingly, the report mentioned that "feedstock for biofuel occupies just 1% of cropland but the rising world population, changing diets and demand for biofuels are estimated to increase demand for cropland by between 17% and 44% by 2020. However, the balance of evidence indicates there will be sufficient appropriate land available to 2020 to meet this demand." Recognising that sustainability criteria need to be Europe wide, the report recommends that strong, mandatory, sustainability criteria should be included in the 011/2012 EU Renewable Energy Directive

Taking a different perspective, Action Aid argue, that C02 reductions can be achieved in the transport sector without recourse to industrial biofuels. They point out that, amongst other proposed measures, doubling the fuel efficiency of new cars would result in a saving of 12 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year whilst increasing the percentage of journeys by foot (from 24 to 36%) and bike (1.5 to 15%) would save some 7 million tonnes per year. This is compared to the 2.5million tonnes a year that the current biofuels policy will achieve.

Whilst some of the changes suggested by ActionAid would require significant changes in peoples behaviour (good luck with getting people to leave their cars at home one day a week, for example), the paper does, as mentioned in Part 1 of this post, describe how animal and food wastes could provide very significant amounts of methane (although it is not clear what proportion would be food waste and whether this would be easier or more difficult to collect than the animal waste.)

A bright spot on the horizon mentioned in Part1 of this post was biofuels derived from algae - but even here there are issues. Commercial success is not guaranteed, as shown by the case of US start-up GreenFuels Technologies who went bust in 2008 after difficulties in maintaining its algae growth chambers at its Arizona pilot plant. In addition, there are question marks over whether large industrial plants will show the same performance seen in initial lab and pilot plant trials.

In the UK, the Carbon Trust was funding a "Algae Biofuels challenge" which aimed to "find a winning formula for cultivating 70 billion litres of algae biofuel a year by 2030" - but funding for this has recently been cut completely.

Some reassurance can be found in a statement from Norman Baker, the (deep breath) Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, who wrote in 2010 that " Biofuels have an important role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly where there is no viable alternative fuel on the horizon, as is the case with aviation and HGVs. In addition, they also have a role to play in promoting the security of energy supply. But we firmly believe that the
potential carbon benefits of biofuels can only be realised if they are produced in a sustainable way", going on to say "In particular, my Department takes the issue of indirect land use change seriously. . . I have written to the EU Energy, Environment and Climate Commissioners to impress on them the need for an
adequate and robust solution".

So there you have it. It's complicated. This post has only been able to scratch at the surface of just a few of the issues involved.

So what to do now? Well, BFTF being BFTF, did some nudging, and received the following responses: Norman Baker (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport)
Sent Email thanking the government for taking measures to ensure that indirect land-use effects do not result in bio-fuels having adverse environmental impacts and for taking steps to persuade the EU to implement robust measures in this area. Also asked what plans there were to utilise animal wastes to generate bio-methane, as is done in Germany and other countries. Lastly, why was funding for the "Algal Biofuels Challenge" project cut?

Dr Ibbett
Sent Email thanking him for his lecture. Asked him for his comments on the bio-methane technology being used in Germany to generate fuel from animal and food wastes. Asked him if he thought the IEA roadmap was realistic.

Local mosques
Sent Email suggesting that this in another area where common ground with the wider society can be found.

UPDATE (Norman Baker)
Received a comprehensive response from Defra, who my question had been passed onto. . .

The reply mentioned that that Government (or rather Defra) has published an Anaerobic Digestion Strategy (see here), part of which looks at the opportunities for the use of biomethane as a transport fuel.

Regarding the cutting off of funding to the Carbon Trust algal biofuel challenge, the response said that there had been no commitment to funding beyond April 2011 and that the Government had identified this as an area where there was already significant industrial funding and interest

Also, in a recent consultation (see here) the Government proposed giving two certificates for each litre of fuel (instead of one) if the fuel was made from a non-food crop (e.g. wood or algae derived).

(Note : The UK has a target of 5% of all road transport fuel to be from renewable sources. This is known as the “Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation”. Fuel suppliers show they have met the obligation by obtaining “Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates. The fuel suppliers can obtain these certificates if their fuel production has sufficiently low greenhouse gas emissions and is sufficiently sustainable. If a fuel supplier does not have enough certificates at the end of the reporting year, it must either buy more or pay a 'buy-out' penalty. )

UPDATE(Dr Ibbett)
Dr Ibbett kindly replied to my email and commented that anaerobic digestion of waste was, as he understood it, already commercially underway in the UK and around the world, although more work may be required to improve the efficiency of the process

Government Policy and Research on Biofuels

Wikipedia article on BioFuels in Brazil

LACE (lignocellulosic conversion to ethanol) Project

Sustainable Bioenergy Research Centre

Guardian Article on the deforestation caused by biofuels

IEA Biofuels reports

Action Aid list of recent reports

Policy Statement from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport

Dr Ibbett can be contacted at:

Monday, 13 June 2011

University of Nottingham Mayfest - Part 1 - The Event

Universities have long had "Open Days" for propsective students, but having such events for the local population is a much more recent, and very welcome, phenomenon.

Nottingham University had their first open day for the community in 2009. The success of this initial event resulted in a bigger and better open day in 2010 and then in this years extravaganza called "Mayfest".

A free, day-long occasion held on May 7th, Mayfest is perhaps best descibed in the words of the programme - "Old favourites return to sit alongside many exciting new activities. The fantastically popular 'Thunder and Lightning' sessions are back, you can find out what it takes to be a vet, try some brain games or chat with scientists in the labs about the world-leading research being carried out on your
doorstep. Or you could explore our campus with a tour of the secret gardens. We’re a major employer in the region, so you’ll also be able to find out about opportunities to work or study here."

The programme goes on to give a comprehensive listing of all the events taking place which cover subjects as diverse as archaeology, astronomy, biology, geography, physics and eco-housing !

Having been to the (much smaller) 2009 event and enjoyed it tremendously, BFTF was very excited about the 2011 gig and found that, quite simply, there was not enough time in the day to fit in all the stuff that there was to do and see. The wee ones also really enjoyed the event, especially the "Thunder and lightning" demonstration. . .

Now, if you only remember one thing about science lessons at school it is likely to be the experiment where the teacher showed what happens when lithinum is put in water, or the one where mangnesium reacts with a ferocious white flame to form magnesium oxide. Well, in "Thunder and Lightning" they took it to the next level. High points included the spectacular ammonium dichromate "Volcano reaction" (the clue is in the name) in which the amount of material present after the reaction seemed to be a lot more than there was before it; the rather loud "Barking Dog" reactions that demonstrated how flame fronts propagate and a series of demonstrations of the chemistry of some explosive compounds. This latter part of the programme included firing a wax candle from a breech loading musket through three layers of plywood and also a demonstrantion on how small amounts of explosive can bend metal plates (and make a bang so loud that it will leave your ears ringing ! Utterly top quality stuff- guaranteed to make science seen interesting and exciting. BFTF will certainly be there next year.

Later, in the physics department, BFTF was able to see the Universities telescopes and see live images of sunspots on the. . .er. . .sun. Also, a range of experiments and demonstrations were on show, including a desktop microscope that can resolve down the atomic level (let me say that again - it can see individual atoms!!!) and experiments involving liquid nitrogen (there seems to be no limit to the fun that can be had with this cryogenic material).

Moving to the Portland Building, where further activites were on show, BFTF was able to "fly" around a 3-D model of the lake disrict in the geography section, move a ball through the power of thought alone in the biology section and talk to a researcher from the "science and society" department about the assessing the risks of introducing new technologies.

This last point touches on something that is a wonderful feature of open days such as Mayfest - you can talk to the researchers and students who are working in these specialised fields. Now, it is certainly the case that students are called students for a reason, and it is remarkably easy to trip them up by asking the most innocent of questions. Most memorably in Mayfest 2011, asking a physics student about how light rays in a fibre optic cable "knew" whether to bounce off or go through the outer wall of the fibre resulted in the student saying that this was a very good question and that he would need to find out the answer in the library that night!). In contrast, talking to the senior researchers is rarely anything other than a fascinating learning experience that brings the opportunity to see many aspects of a field that the mainstream media simply does not report.

Sadly, as mentioned earlier, there simply was not time to see everything, so BFTF missed out on the chance to see how Nottingham Universtity is a Human Rights Hub, any of the Engineering displays, the interactive poetry areas, the Philosophy section, the Archaeology section. . .well, I think you get the picture.

The event was certainly very well attended, by both parents and children alike and numbers did not noticeably drop until the University staff started packing up at about 5pm.

It is worth mentioning that Nottingham University (as is the case with many other Universities) has a calendar of public lectures on various topics. These are a great way of learning about a field of study from an expert in the area. There is always a question and answer session, so you can quiz the presenter if you feel that they are missing a trick or if you want to clarify a point.

One need not feel restricted to lectures in a subject that you are knowledgeable about, public lectures are a great opportunity to find out more about topics that are in the news (for instance Nottingham

University has just had a public lecture on "European Politics in 90 minutes") or are simply interesting (such as another recent lecture entitled "Why do chemists want to make new molecules")

These lectures are, in BFTF's experience, invariably a great learning experience, and offer a chance to hear about topics from experts in their field without the distorting lens of the media gettting in the way.

For parents, particularly those of children in secondary school (and if you the youngsters are interested), public lectures provide an opportunity and reason to actually visit a University and to see what the buildings and lecture theatres are like. This can only help break down any fears a youngster may have about higher education. Also they get a chance to see, at first hand, the enthusiasm of researchers and the kind of teamwork that is characteristic of research activities. It is a real eye opener to hear the efforts that people go to in order to find answers to the questions they are puzzling over.

So there you go. University Public Open Days and Public Lectures. Its all Good.

Find out about the actions that this event provoked in part two of this posting - here.

Further infornation:
University of Nottingham Mayfest
University of Nottingham Institute for Science and Society
University of Nottingham Community Engagement