Italy leads the way with biofuel

Lawmakers in Italy are set to make history as they will legally require advanced biofuels in all petrol and diesel products from 2018 onwards. This green revolution aimed at cutting carbon emissions will have a modest impact at first, with just 0.6% biomass being needed, but as the number of ethanol plants increase, the number is set to rise.

In a town called Crescentino, a brand new ‘second generation’ bioethanol plant has just opened at a cost of US$150 million dollars; it is said to be the first in the world to be able to produce second generation bioethanol on a commercial scale using enzymatic conversion. Unlike previous bioethanol plants that used scarce food crops – such as corn, sugar and palm oil – to produce fuel, the second generation bioethanol process uses waste products such as straw.

The bioethanol facility in Crescentino. Image: BBC.

The use of biomass in fuel has proven controversial across Europe. One of the criticisms of biofuels is the destruction of virgin rainforests in Brazil and South East Asia, and the creation of food scarcities, particularly of corn in central America. Europe adopted the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009 which required that all fuel to have 10% biomass by 2020; after concerns that land was being converted from food production to fuel, this target was dropped to 5.75% and currently the European Parliament has a 2.5% target by 2020 (read also: Euro MP’s against biofuels). The Italian government has thus stolen a march on the rest of Europe with this.

Novozymes, one of the companies involved in the Crescentino initiative, welcomed the government’s decision to make it legally binding on fuel suppliers to include advanced biofuels in their petrol and diesel.

“We applaud the Italian government decision to establish a national mandate for advanced biofuels – the very first of its kind in Europe,” said Sebastian Søderberg, from the company. “After years of dithering and stalemate on biofuels policy in Europe, it is very encouraging that a large member state is ready to lead by example. This is most needed to spark investors’ interest, and should be a source of inspiration for the Council and the new Parliament to come together in adopting an ambitious EU wide mandate for advanced biofuels by 2020 and beyond.”

Second generation biofuels utilise a process that mimics how fungi digest woodland detritus to produce effectively sugar from cellulose. This technology is a welcomed leap forward as activists claim that its use could replace 50% of petrol without the need to change agricultural practices (read also: The next great biofuel). The initial facility will have the capacity to produce about 75 million litres a year and there are a further three factories already planned in southern Italy

“We will turn agricultural waste into millions of litres of low-emission green fuel, proving that cellulosic ethanol is no longer a distant dream. It is here, it is happening, and it is ready for large-scale commercialisation,” Peder Holk Nielsen, also from Novozymes, said of the facility in northern Italy.

The IEA believes that world biofuel production reached about 1.86 million barrels a day in 2012 and think that a figure of 2.36 million barrels per day will be reached by 2018, which is equivalent to about 4% of global demand. However, they also add that the uncertainty surrounding official government policies both in Europe and the States has and will significantly reduce the sectors growth potential. In a communiqué, the Agency said:

“Overall the policy framework for advanced biofuels in many countries seems to be insufficient to fully address the investment risks associated with first-of-their-kind commercial scale production plants.”

Novozymes is hoping to prove the IEA wrong and is planning to be involved in up to 25 second generation plants by 2025. “Our technology will prove it is working, that our fuel per mile is cheaper than gasoline in the long run. We can replace 50% of gasoline without changing agricultural practices. Do our politicians want this?” Nielsen asked.

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