Market perspectives for products from future energy-driven biorefineries by 2020

The Institute of Energy of the EU’s Joint Research Centre has issued a publication entitled “Market perspectives for products from future energy-driven biorefineries by 2020.”  This report was produced within the framework of the JRC Biofuel Thematic Programme, this study aims to identify promising market opportunities and penetration strategies for products from future energy-oriented biorefineries in Europe by 2020. In view of the immature status of energy biorefinery technologies and concepts, the analysis mostly sketches qualitative perspectives, but it does not make detailed quantitative projections. Since currently considered energy biorefineries concentrate on bioethanol-side streams, the focus of the analysis is on ethanol-related technologies, pathways and products. An executive summary from the report:

Unlike other industrial sectors, the transport sector is almost fully dependent on oil-derived fuels. Transport is also the only sector that did not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. The security and diversity of energy supply for transport in an environmentally-friendly way is a key challenge for the EU policymakers. Biofuels alleviate partially these problems, but current biofuel production is not as efficient as oil refining. The recently emerged bio-refinery approach that aims to optimise the energy, environmental and monetary cost of a portfolio of fuels and products (similar to oil refineries) is hoped to be able to overcome the drawbacks of current biofuels. The goal of this study is to identify promising market opportunities and penetration strategies for fuels for transport and other energy products from future energy-oriented biorefineries in the EU by 2020.

The fuel market in the EU and in the world is characterised with faster growth in diesel and middle distillates demand and lower (negative in the EU) growth in the demand for petrol and heavy fractions. Because of techno-economic constraints, oil refineries are not able to boost infinitely the diesel and middle distillates fraction at the expense of all other fractions. The sufficient supply of diesel and middle distillates with required qualities and consequently, the sustainability of fuel supply / demand balance both in the EU and worldwide is becoming a growing problem. The search for novel transport fuels should therefore focus on finding appropriate diesel and middle distillates additives or substitutes.

There are two main pathways to energy biorefineries – biochemical and thermochemical. The key fuel derivative of the biochemical route is ethanol. Ethanol can be blended with petrol, but this would not ease the EU’s fuel balance, as it would increase petrol surplus, but it would not reduce gross crude oil imports. Ethanol blends with diesel would fit better the EU fuel mix, but they still face important technical and technological challenges. Other energy biochemical concepts include combined manufacturing of: acetone-butanol-ethanol, ethanol-furfural, as well as ethanol-solid biofuel (pellets). None of these concepts, however, offers great potential to lessen the pressure on EU’s fuel balance by 2020.

The thermochemical pathway could possibly provide a better response to market needs because its key derivatives – biomass-to-liquid (BTL) diesel and middle distillates – exhibit similar and even superior qualities than oil-based diesel. Other thermochemical products that may have fuel or energy application (though with much smaller potential) are methanol, di-methyl-ether and hydrogen. Nonetheless, similar to biochemical pathways, thermochemical pathways are still facing a number of techno-economic challenges, some of which have been researched for decades. To reach market-scale application, energy biorefinery technologies and products therefore need additional and continuous research efforts and funding.

In view of the immaturity of energy biorefinery technologies, a more conservative evolution-based approach for their development seems more appropriate rather than a more aggressive, revolution-based approach that aims at step changes within short time. Energy biorefineries should focus on a limited number of fuels and energy products. The aim to have a combined portfolio of fuels and chemicals might provoke tension with far more mature chemical bio-refineries and excessive market cost. The utilisation of biomass residues from primary fuel/s production for generation of power and/or heat in particular, should precede expansion towards other derivatives. The outlook for integration opportunities and synergy options between energy biorefineries and conventional oil refineries by 2020 is bleak.

Read the full publication here in PDF format.

Citation: Market perspectives for products from future energy-driven biorefineries by 2020, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute of Energy, ISBN: 978-92-79-13940-6, ISSN: 1018-5593, DOI: 10.2790/159

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