Bioethanol use in Europe and globally

Overview

First generation bioethanol is produced by distillation from crops such as wheat, corn, sugar cane and sugar beet. In Europe, wheat is the main crop grown for bioethanol production - accounting for 0.7% of EU agricultural land and 2% of Europe's grain supply [Source: ePure]. The EC has proposed to limit biofuel produced from "food crops" at 7% of energy use in transport, due to concerns about food price and land use impacts. However, there are conflicting studies and opinions on the issue (see the biofuels reports database) and biofuels producers suggest that the impacts of ethanol production from starch crops may have been exaggerated and the many benefits of biofuels (European fuel security, job and wealth creation, production of valuable byproducts, GHG reduction) have not been fully taken into account.

 

Cellulosic ethanol (a second generation biofuel) can be produced from a wider range of feedstocks, including agricultural residues, woody raw materials or energy crops that do not compete directly with food crops for land use. This requires a more complex production process (cellulose hydrolysis), which is currently at the demonstration stage. Significant investment in R&D&D in Europe and the United States will lead to wider production of cellulosic ethanol on the commercial scale within the next decade. However, currently in the US and Europe most bioethanol is still produced from crops (for example, it was projected that in 2011, 40% of corn planted in the US was used as a feedstock for bioethanol, compared to just 7% a decade earlier).

Demand for ethanol is likely to increase over the next two decades in the US. The EPA indicates that E10 is now the norm for ethanol/gasoline blends in the US, there will be a mix of E10 and E15 by 2017 and by 2030 E15 will be the standard [Ref: Tier 3 Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards Program]. In November 2014, the Renewable Fuels Association reported that already 2/3 of car manufacturers approve the use of E15 in their new vehicles.

In Brazil, which has the most mature market for fuel ethanol, the mandatory blend level of anhydrous ethanol was increased to 25% in May 2013.

In the EC, uncertainty over legislation in 2013 and 2014 continued to delay market development. However, the world's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant, developed by Beta Renewables, went into production at Crecentino in 2013.

A number of pilot and demonstration plants are also developing novel routes to create bioethanol from commercial waste and MSW.

Ethanol can also be produced from energy crops, which may be grown on marginal land not currently used for food crops, using plant species that do not compete with food markets. In April 2013, work commenced on a 20 MMgy commercial ethanol plant in Florida using sweet sorghum as a feedstock. The plant is being built by Southeast Renewable Fuels LLC using the process technology of Uni-Systems do Brasil Ltda.

Use of plant breeding, novel crops and biotechnology to improve yields

Plant science is also being used to increase the production of first generation bioethanol, for example Enogen® corn developed by Syngenta.

Triticale has been tested as an alternative to wheat as a bioethanol feedstock. Trials in the UK in 2011 showed it offered greater yields at the same or lower levels of nitrogen inputs.

See the plant breeding and biotechnology page for further information and links.

Novel microbial fermentation

Although yeast strains are commercially used to produce ethanol, other microbes, such as Zymomonas mobilis, have also been investigated. Zymomonas mobilis uses the Entner-Doudoroff pathway to convert sugar to pyruvate, which is then fermented to produce ethanol. The organism offers potential benefits over yeast strains, including higher ethanol yields, greater ethanol tolerance, no need for additional oxygen and greater potential for genetic modification. Z. mobilis can also use nitrogen gas as a Nitrogen source with no reduction in ethanol yield.

Process efficiency improvements

The efficiency of ethanol production systems is being improved by innovation process technology such as the proprietary controlled flow cavitation process (CFC) developed by Arisdyne Systems Inc. which can boost ethanol yield by over 3 per cent by increasing the surface area available for enzyme interaction with corn slurry. The reduction in particle size using this technique, could similarly improve the efficiency of biodiesel production and biogas production.

Dual alcohol blends

Research is being carried out on dual-alcohol gasoline blends (e.g. 10% ethanol plus 10% methanol), which has a distillation curve close to that of pure gasoline, minimizing the impact on fuel volatility [Source: Distillation Curves for Alcohol-Gasoline Blends, V. F. Andersen et al, Energy Fuels, 2010, 24 (4), pp 2683–2691].