Innovations boost EU bioliquids

High levels of investment in bioenergy research are yielding impressive results, signaling significant potential for cost reductions and improvements in efficiency that will be crucial to the sustainable future of the bioenergy industry.

Successful research and experimentation to improve technologies for converting the many forms of biomass feedstock into usable fuels is opening the floodgates for the biomass energy industry to produce a range of usable fuels for heat, power, and transport. In particular, Aarhus University and Aalborg University in Denmark have developed a technique called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) to produce bio-oil from a wide range of biomass feedstocks at low costs and with very high efficiencies of 80-95%.

HTL is, essentially, a pressure cooking process that uses super critical steam and catalysts to recover more than 70% of the carbon content from wet or dry biomass material. It has very high efficiencies and low costs through operating as a flow process rather than a batch process. A wide range of wet or dry feedstock can be utilized, from sewage sludge and plant material to industrial and household waste. The wet medium does not require harmful solvents and readily accepts wet or dry biomass feedstock. Considering that the vast majority of biomass feedstock is wet, the process holds significant advantages over other existing biomass processing technologies.

The resultant bio-oil, also referred to as crude HTL oil, is very similar to a stable high grade crude oil, and can be used directly in heavy engines or refined using existing technology into a range of fuels to supply various industry requirements, from aviation fuels to heating oil. Crude HTL has numerous advantages over unstable pyrolysis oils, with no ash content and very low oxygen, water, and sulfur contents, and it can be easily stored.

With the recent EU ruling to limit the production of first generation biofuels, demand will be shifting further toward second generation biofuels and bioenergy from waste sources. As innovations such as HTL come to fruition, the production costs of sustainably sourced bioliquids will fall as production increases. The prospect of low cost, high grade bioliquid fuels from a range of underutilized biomass sources holds the potential to change markets for biomass heat and power generation and transport across Europe.

The allocation of bioliquids between end-use sectors will be determined by the balance of costs between fossil fuels, bioliquids, and government support on national scales (see Datamonitor's forthcoming report "Bioliquid Heat and Power Generation in the EU27" for more information). It is becoming clear that with the rapid rate of innovation that is being seen in the biomass industry, there is potential to considerably reduce costs and erode the need for government support altogether.

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