From fossil fuels to green fuels

Climate-neutral agriculture and food production

Cultivating energy crops means farmers can still generate income from this marginal land. Video: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

If European climate goals are to be achieved, it is important to switch from fossil resources to renewable raw materials such as biomass. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research are therefore collaborating with European colleagues in various ways to find new options for making the economy more biobased.

“Action is needed urgently to keep global warming within the limits agreed upon in the Climate Agreement in Paris”, says Berien Elbersen, a senior researcher in land use changes and the environment at Wageningen University & Research. “One form this action can take is reducing CO₂ emissions, for example by reducing the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas in the transport sector.”

For heavy users of fossil fuels in the sector, such as planes and ships, truly environmentally friendly alternatives are electrification and sustainably generated green hydrogen. Work is currently underway to develop these options but unfortunately it will take another twenty to thirty years before they are sufficiently mature, and they therefore cannot be used to reduce CO₂ emissions quickly. That is why we need to look for different solutions in the meantime, says Elbersen. “If we can replace the aviation fuel and what the marine shipping sector calls bunker fuel with green raw materials, it will buy us time to slow down global warming.”

A variety of projects

Elbersen is working with her Wageningen colleagues at Wageningen Environmental Research, Wageningen Plant Research and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research on a variety of European projects aimed at the transition to a more biobased and circular economy. Wageningen has a lot of expertise in this area.

One of the projects is BECOOL, which looks at the development of second-generation biofuels for transport. The name BECOOL comes from ‘BRAZIL-EU Cooperation for Development of Advanced Lignocellulosic Biofuels’. There is a companion project to BECOOL in Brazil, called BioVALUE. Both projects have the same objective, namely more efficient use of biomass for transport.

You can grow biomass for biofuels or other biomaterials on marginal land

The shipping and aviation sectors are heavy users of fossil fuels. Photo: Shutterstock

“First-generation biofuels use sugars and oil from crops that could also be used for food,” explains Elbersen. “When the production of biomass competes with food production on a large scale, all kinds of undesirable indirect land use effects arise. Food prices may increase sharply or the cultivation of food crops may shift to newly cleared land or marginal land, while the best farmland is used for more lucrative biomass crops. This can also lead to forests being felled, which is bad for the climate. That is why we want an end to those first-generation biofuels.”

Second generation

In the search for second-generation biofuels, the BECOOL project is looking at sugars and oils obtained from lignocellulose. These are crops that are not suitable for consumption, such as Miscanthus, woody crops or waste streams such as straw from wheat or maize. Energy crops often have relatively deep roots and are therefore better able to withstand drought. They can grow on less appealing, marginal land. This is land that is naturally less fertile, for example because the soil has a very high saline level, does not hold water well, has poor root penetration or is susceptible to erosion. Cultivating energy crops means farmers can still generate income from this marginal land.

Examples of crops for second-generation biofuels are species that are naturally found in savannahs and prairies, such as Miscanthus, switchgrass, giant reed and reed canary grass. Willow and poplar are also suitable if the soil is not too dry, and sorghum can be added as an extra crop to the existing crop rotation.

BECOOL is a research and innovation project to foster the cooperation between EU and Brazil in the development of advanced biofuels, from sustainable agricultural value chains, based on lignocellulosic biomass.

Elbersen: “The market for food crops is highly developed and food prices are set on the world market. If a farmer is unable to grow food crops for that price on marginal land, they will not do so because it simply isn’t viable. What is more, food crops have to meet stringent quality requirements. Potatoes or sugar beets grown in soil with limited water holding capacity or low soil fertility are too poor yielding and poor in quality to be acceptable for the food market. But you can grow biomass for other applications, such as biofuels or other biomaterials, on such land.”

Sustainable intensification

One interesting approach is what the researchers term sustainable intensification: producing more biomass on the same piece of land. If the growing season is long enough, farmers can add an additional crop to the existing crop rotation. An example is the Po Valley in Italy. At present, the grain grown there is harvested early and the land lies fallow for the rest of the summer. That is a pity. Elbersen: “After the grain harvest, they could grow sorghum or sunn hemp as a biomass crop.”

Scientists at Wageningen and in Brazil are also investigating whether the crop residues left on the land after harvesting can be turned into something more valuable. Farmers can plough in the crop residues to improve soil fertility but leaving large amounts of crop residues can sometimes negatively affect the soil and water quality, or will not necessarily lead to an increase in soil carbon. In these situations it would be better to collect them and put them to good use.

The bioethanol production in Brazil increases when demands for sugar decline. Its logistics are incredibly efficient as sugar cane is usually grown on large plantations. Photo: Shutterstock

For example, a new type of harvester can harvest sugar beets with the leaves attached and then separate them. Innovative techniques can be used to turn the crop residues into valuable intermediate products that can then be converted into biomaterials or liquid biofuels for the transport sector. “If we use our waste streams efficiently, there will be far fewer indirect effects on land use or biodiversity, for instance,” says Elbersen.

Logistical challenges

There are major logistical challenges in making a biofuel production and supply chain technically and commercially feasible. Logistical modelling and quantifying the entire value chain are the kind of things Wageningen excels at. Elbersen: “Biomass has a low energy density. You need to accumulate an awful lot of biomass if the process of turning it into something with value is to be efficient. That means you need a lot of transport to collect the biomass across a large area, and that requires fuel too.” BECOOL is working on a two-tier solution in which the raw biomass is first turned into pyrolysis oil regionally as an intermediate product. The pyrolysis oil can easily be transported in large tanker trucks to a centrally located factory where it can be gasified and turned into biodiesel.

Elbersen says Wageningen has a lot of expertise on all stages of the value chain, from the cultivation of the crops to the biomass composition, the optimum closed-cycle applications, the processing plants and the logistical aspects. That is why it is interesting to compare the situations in Europe and Brazil.

Bert Annevelink of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research works with models that help find the optimum set-up for the logistical process and compares this with the Brazilian models. Annevelink: “What is interesting is that the Brazilians have included their car industry in the energy transition from the start. Cars in Brazil run on both bioethanol and fossil fuel. The sugar processing industry is also hybrid and capable of switching to more bioethanol if demand for sugar declines. Brazilian logistics are highly efficient because sugar cane is often grown on large plantations clustered together”.

Marginal and contaminated land

Berien Elbersen is also participating in the European project MAGIC, aimed at cultivating industrial crops on marginal land in Europe. Along with other European researchers, she is looking at where in Europe marginal land can be found, where the land is being abandoned and what methods can be used to assess the sustainability of various value chains. Wageningen plant breeders are selecting the most suitable energy crops for biomass production. Not just the fruit but also the stalks and leaves need to be suitable for use in new applications. The scientists are looking for varieties that are resistant to drought or salinity or that have a promising combination of oils.

European agricultural policy should be geared to sustainable use of the land

Sorghum is an example of a crop for second-generation biofuels that grows well naturally, and that can already be added to existing crop rotations. Photo: Shutterstock

In addition to the production of biomass on marginal land, Elbersen is exploring the options for biomass production on contaminated land. This is the subject of the European project GOLD. Together with Paul Romkens and other colleagues at Wageningen Environmental Research, Elbersen is examining the possibility of growing biomass on contaminated land and whether the soil can be decontaminated or stabilised by the crops absorbing the pollutants or preventing leaching. “Examples are former land fills or old mining areas”, says Elbersen. “The partners in the project are working in the laboratory and on location to see which plants are suitable for what degree of contamination and how you can turn them into biofuels for transport. Do the plants survive? How fast do they grow? How much contamination do they absorb? What can be done with the pollutants that are removed from the biomass during the conversion into biofuel? Wageningen is creating an overview of the contaminated land and calculating the potential for biofuel production across Europe. We are also looking at how the contamination is accumulated in the crop and how this translates in the effectiveness of the bioremediation.”

Legislation and regulations

The environmental aspects and social and economic sustainability of various biomass value chains are being studied in the European project BIKE. Researchers are assessing the current policy, legislation and regulations to help policymakers in their efforts to design new policies for the use of biomass. Turning waste streams into valuable products is a key aspect.

Much of the research is into the conversion processes for turning the crops into new products, while attention is also given to the development of the market. There is no shortage of crop residues in Europe but fluctuations in harvests, the availability in relation to sustainable soil management and price can all impede the establishment of biofuel and biochemical factories. Elbersen says there is a chicken-and-egg problem. “European farmers do not currently produce large volumes of energy crops and harvest little or nothing in the way of primary waste streams because there is no market for them. At the same time, it is difficult to get biofuel and biochemical factories up and running because there is no concentrated supply of biomass.”

Coordinating role

According to Elbersen, it is essential that governments adopt a clear coordinating role in making biofuels a serious alternative to fossil fuels. “European agricultural policy should be geared not just to food production but also to sustainable use of the land and biodiversity.”

Ideally, fertile farmland should not be used for producing bioenergy, unless it involves sustainable intensification approaches where food and non-food biomass production is combined “We can create a lot of win-win situations with marginal land if we focus primarily on sustainable land use from now on. Competition with food crops is less relevant because of the low economic gains from food crops on this land, and then it doesn’t matter whether the harvested crop is used for food or bioproducts such as biofuels for transport. The biomass production is not yet optimal but we have to pull out all the stops to save the planet. We can’t afford to do nothing.”

European research context

BECOOL, MAGIC, GOLD and BIKE address the following European policy challenge: Sustainable options for bio-resources for transport and materials in the transition to a circular bioeconomy

BRAZIL-EU Cooperation for Development of Advanced Lignocellulosic Biofuels (BECOOL): a European-Brazilian collaborative programme for the development of a supply chain for biofuels from sustainable agricultural sources

Marginal lands for Growing Industrial Crops (MAGIC): the development of resource-efficient and commercially viable industrial crops grown on marginal land in Europe

Bridging the gap between phytoremediation solutions on Growing energy crOps on contaminated LanDs and clean biofuel production (GOLD): the production of clean biofuels with a limited indirect change in land use

Biofuels production at low ILUC risK for European sustainable bioeconomy (BIKE): providing evidence for the market potential for value chains with a low risk of indirect land use change for biomass and the transport biofuels made from it in Europe

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Environmental Research, Wageningen Plant Research, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research

European and other countries involved: Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom

BECOOL involves collaboration with Brazil as well. GOLD includes partners from Canada, China and India. MAGIC includes partners from Ukraine.

Duration BECOOL: 2017 – 2022 MAGIC: 2017 – 2021 GOLD: 2021 – 2025 BIKE: 2020 – 2023

More information: BECOOL PROJECT – Brazil-EU Cooperation for development of advanced lignocellulosic biofuels Magic – Marginal Lands for Growing Industrial Crops ( Gold-H2020 BIKE-Biofuels Project

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