T HINK “BIOFUELS” and most Canadians still think of corn. More specifically, the primarily corn-based ethanol that makes up more than five per cent of the gasoline Canadian drivers pump into their cars and trucks every day.
But ethanol is just a small part of a much bigger biofuels story. For Canada to hit its Paris Agreement climate targets, advanced biofuels — those made from non-food biomass — have a key role to play. Boosting efficiency and decarbonizing our electricity system will get us part of the way, but biofuels will be able to do what efficiency and electricity simply can’t. In particular, technological advances in biofuels made from organic waste that can be directly substituted for gasoline and diesel fuel will help Canada in its transition to a low-carbon future.
Let’s rewind a bit first. Ethanol is the biofuel blended with gasoline that comes from plant sugars and starches. Biodiesel comes from plant oils (mainly from seeds, except in the case of algae), used cooking oil and animal fat. There are many benefits to biofuels. They’re renewable resources, they burn cleaner and more completely than petroleum gasoline and diesel, and they deliver another economic output to rural areas across Canada.
Vehicles that use pure ethanol-based fuels produced from crops such as corn and wheat emit about 45 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gas-powered vehicles. Ethanol produced from more efficient energy crops such as sugarcane is even more effective at reducing life-cycle emissions, but unfortunately, given short growing seasons and cold winters, many of the best energy crops can’t be produced commercially in Canada.
But it isn’t all about crop-based biofuels; other biofuels have come a long way since the Canadian government first imposed the ethanol and biodiesel blending mandates in 2010. That same year, the U.S. navy made waves when it fuelled up a small surface patrol vessel with biodiesel de- rived from algae. It was the world’s first full-power demonstration of a naval vessel running on a 50-50 biodiesel-diesel mix, and it was the first step toward realizing a goal set out one year earlier to meet half the U.S. navy’s total energy consumption with renewable fuels by 2020.
‘…waste biomass is cheap and, more importantly, it’s not geographically specific. ‘
Other biofuels have risen to meet the demands for clean and green propulsion, too. A fuel derived from beef fat has proven to be a powerful drop-in replacement in large, diesel-burning marine engines in Canada and elsewhere. Perhaps one of the most exciting possibilities lies in the seeds of camelina, a hardy North American plant once thought a nuisance for choking out more lucrative crops such as flax.
Camelina is a highly adaptable crop that can survive spells of frost and drought with little in the way of water or fertilizer, even as far north as the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, and is among the highest-yielding biofuel crop in temperate climates. It’s so promising, in fact, that it has seen growth as a source of aviation fuel in the most high-performing aircraft, including a wide range of supersonic fighter jets.
Additionally, camelina is a non-food crop, and thanks to its short growing season, it need not compete with food crops. Instead, camelina can be grown in a rotation with wheat crops on non-irrigated lands.
Indeed, studies have shown that camelina crops can produce more than 570 litres of oil per hectare annually while being rotated with wheat crops, thereby using less land than other options. A 2013 Michigan Technological University life-cycle analysis of camelina jet fuel found that it could reduce aircraft emissions by 84 per cent when compared with standard petroleum jet fuel.
For most Canadians, a ride aboard a supersonic jet or a sea-faring freighter is not part of the daily commute. And though concerns about deforestation and the use of food crops for transportation fuel still remain, the biofuel industry is increasingly moving beyond so-called first-generation biofuels, which are derived from edible crops, toward advanced biofuels derived instead from waste materials such as wheat straw, corn stover, forestry residues or sewage sludge.
“Frankly, with ethanol, the Americans were looking for a good way to give a farm subsidy for corn producers for a variety of reasons, and it was sort of poorly disguised as such,” says Steven Martin, CEO and chief scientist at Pond Technologies, a Toronto-based producer of biofuels made from algae grown using carbon-rich emissions from industrial smokestacks. “Those first-generation fuels such as [corn-based] ethanol are going to fall by the wayside.” Martin says the ethanol we currently use can be somewhat corrosive, but is only a problem if used in concentrations above 20 per cent. That’s not a concern now, given that the average concentration of ethanol in Canadian gas tanks is closer to seven per cent, but it will have to be addressed if ethanol is going to play a bigger role.
Animesh Dutta, a biofuels researcher at the University of Guelph, agrees that Canada’s decision to put corn in our gas tanks was well intentioned, if a bit rushed. “Canada put a subsidy on corn-based fuels without putting much thought into it,” Dutta says. “We were just trying to follow the U.S. without a thought about what we could have done differently.”
What we could have done differently is becoming abundantly clear. Today, a renewable fuel that’s remarkably similar to crude oil is quickly gaining market interest. Alternatively known as “biocrude” or “green crude,” the petroleum-like fuel can be made from a variety of sources.
Vancouver will participate in a pilot project next year that could see municipal vehicles powered by oil derived from organic materials found in residential wastewater. Yes, cars powered by poop could soon be hitting the roads in Vancouver. The neighbouring suburb of Surrey is engaged in a similar project with biomass-derived natural gas. There the city is building a plant and pipeline system designed to power the city’s waste-collection trucks on the gases released from the organic compost and yard trimmings that the trucks collect. Both options effectively close the “carbon loop” on municipal vehicle fleets.
“I’m optimistic that within the next decade we’re going to start seeing some of the crude oil that goes into refineries that exist today in Western Canada being replaced with bio sources, or renewable sources,” says Michael Rensing, director of low carbon fuels with B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines. “If you look at the Chevron refinery in Burnaby, Chevron Canada does not own significant sources of crude oil — they purchase it. So they can contemplate a different model where there may be different sources of crude where those sources are renewable.”
Of course, unlike Chevron, many oil refinery operators in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario also own large petroleum assets — in the oil sands, for instance. It’s harder for them to make the business case for switching more than a fraction of the abundant and relatively cheap crude resource for biofuels.
For the consumer, the blending of biofuel with conventional fuel has gone largely unnoticed. “How do you convince people to literally buy into a new technology with the second-biggest investment of their lives?” Rensing asks. “Well, you wouldn’t even know it. The fastest purchase decision you make is literally the one when you pull into a gas station, because you are choosing every single time which supplier you go to and there are a lot of people that go by price and not by loyalty. So every time you pull into a gas station, you are entering into a contract to purchase fuel where you trust the supplier is giving you exactly what you’re supposed to be getting to run your car well and not cause damage.” For the consumer then, the question is simple: Do you trust the companies that have been delivering a quality product for decades to continue to deliver quality products?
‘ Today, a renewable fuel that’s remarkably similar to crude is quickly gaining market share. ‘
The easy answer, according to Rensing, is to go where the experience is. “Oil companies have a hundred years of experience dealing with billion-dollar assets, and as much as we complain about reliability if the price goes up when there’s a refinery outage, what they’re doing is making sure that we can all travel wherever we want to, whenever we want to and always have the services we expect,” Rensing says. “That’s one of the reasons that these biofuels that are true drop-ins that meet the commercial standards for petroleum products are the more desirable path in the future because we don’t have to change our engines, we don’t have to change our infrastructure.”
In that way, an increasingly biofuelled future spells not necessarily the end for fossil fuel companies but rather an evolution. The experts who’ve been producing and disseminating quality fuel for decades are ideally placed to keep doing that — but with biofuels blended in. For traditional oil companies, Dutta says biofuels are less a matter of environmentalism than economics. “It’s still the same six or seven big companies that will be running the show,” he says. “It’s all about costing.”
But those same cost concerns could alternatively spark a renewed drive for energy localism. Every Canadian should by now be aware that finding public consensus to build an oil pipeline is harder than finding the oil itself. But unlike fossil oil, waste biomass is cheap, it’s uncontroversial and, more importantly, it’s not so geographically specific.
Waste biomass, like that found in plant residues, is one of the most widely available raw materials on the planet and is increasingly looked to as a valuable fuel resource. “There’s no such thing as waste,” Dutta says. “Waste is a resource looking for an opportunity.”
Local waste-to-fuel initiatives such as those cropping up on the West Coast may be rare in Canada but they are becoming the norm in other parts of the world. At the November United Nations climate talks in Morocco, a group of 20 countries — including Canada — launched the Biofuture Platform, an initiative to spur the development of locally sustainable biofuels. In Brazil, the nation leading the initiative, traditional gasoline is considered by some to be the “alternative” transportation fuel because so much of the country already runs on fuel derived from sugarcane.
The UN initiative highlights the vast diversity of biofuels that can behave much like petroleum-derived gasoline or diesel. In effect, there is no silver bullet that will slay our fossil-fuel addiction, but rather there are whole caches of ammunition that are now being uncovered all over the world. In Canada, this largely untapped biological trove includes abundant biomass resources found in forestry and agricultural residues.
What’s In Your Tank?
Last year in Edmonton, the very heart of Canada’s oil country, a bio-fuel pilot plant was launched that will refine canola oil and animal fats into renewable biodiesel. The process uses no water or hydrogen, produces no waste and by 2018 will supply enough biofuel to meet the renewable fuel standards for the entire province, according to site operators SBI Bioenergy.
Interestingly, one-half of the demonstration plant’s $20-million price tag was paid for by those with the most potential to gain or lose in the burgeoning biofuels economy — the Alberta oil industry, with some $10 million raised through the provincial government’s tax on heavy carbon emitters.
“I’m optimistic about the future for biofuels in Canada, and I’m also optimistic about the future in general, which is not something I could have said two or three years ago,” says Martin, Pond Technologies’ chief scientist. “We’ve been working with a couple partners in the oil sands, and I can tell you that there has been a marked change in attitude of the people we’re working with. Where before having a more environmentally sustainable focus was viewed as lip service, I think there’s a real commitment to it now.”