Waste-based biofuels could be humanity’s energy solution

Waste-based biofuels could be a key enabler of the energy transition, transforming the current limited supply of low-carbon transport fuels and creating a local circular economy, according to a new report from Wood Mackenzie.

As the world transitions to new and sustainable energy sources, the somewhat neglected biofuels sector can play a crucial role. Currently, biofuels only represent 3% of the current liquid fuel demand of 100 million barrels per day (b/d).

However, the development of new technologies that boost the production of biofuels from municipal waste, agricultural residues and the recycling of plastic waste could be a game changer for the energy transition. According to Wood Mackenzie, this could supply an additional 20 million barrels per day (b/d) of liquid biofuel by 2050, thus meeting a quarter of all future liquid fuel demand (95 million b/d in 2050), equivalent to to about three quarters of 2050 middle distillate demand.

Wood Mackenzie Vice President, Alan GelderHe said: “It is understandable that many governments have moved away from the use of food-based biofuels, which has hampered the growth of the industry. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for growth, especially when we look at waste-based alternatives. For some areas of the transport sector, such as air travel, there are few alternatives to liquid fuel, making decarbonisation difficult. This biofuel source could be tremendously beneficial, providing a cleaner fuel alternative that addresses both future energy and environmental needs.”

By using waste material as fuel, there will be significant savings in landfill or incineration costs and related emissions. Bio-based diesel and aviation fuels from plant-based feedstocks could emit 80% less carbon than the crude oil-based products that dominate the global market today.

“Waste-based biofuels would reduce carbon emissions at a similar rate and solve problems for industries that are difficult to electrify. According to International Energy Agencythe net-zero pathway requires that almost half of the biofuels consumed in 2030 (45 percent) be produced from waste.”

Various technologies are being developed to convert these solid wastes into liquids. These involve pre-treatment to ‘wash’ the materials, followed by thermal cracking (pyrolysis or gasification) to convert the residues into hydrocarbons. The last stage is processing in a conventional refinery to create biofuel versions of the crude oil-based products we use today.

This process will lead to a circular economy. Since transporting solid waste over distance is expensive, supply chains will be local, where products can be collected and processed in small-scale facilities outside cities and towns.

Gelder said: “When turning waste into biofuels, being local is an advantage. The biofuels ecosystem would revolve around a hub-and-spoke model, in which the initial conversion of waste to biofuels is local, and the liquids produced are then added for processing at an existing refining facility. Refineries know how to do this, and for many this could be key to their long-term viability. It would have huge benefits for local economies and employment, creating a powerful argument for governments to develop incentives.”

Those incentives could take the form of a “carbon tax credit” that would create a level playing field with fossil fuel-based products and significantly improve the competitiveness of biofuels. Biofuels emit CO2 upon combustion, but their net lifecycle emissions are much lower than those of fossil fuels, as the carbon is removed when the plant feedstock is grown or the waste is recycled.

If everything falls into place for waste-based biofuels, accelerated energy transition projections matter. In Wood Mackenzie’s Accelerated Energy Transition 1.5 Scenario, global liquids demand would fall to just 35 million b/d by 2050, 60% less than the base case. Biofuels could meet two-thirds of liquid demand in hard-to-decarbonize transport sectors, as well as provide circular feedstocks for petrochemicals.

Fuente: Wood Mackenzie

Source: Diario Ecologia by diarioecologia.com.

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