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Biofuel Expansion Picks Up Pace

The first transatlantic flight powered by biofuel, a Gulfstream G450 corporate jet that travelled from New Jersey to Paris in June of this year, used a 50-50 blend of biofuel and petroleum-based jet fuel. The biofuel was derived by U.S.-based company Honeywell UOP from camelina, a dedicated energy crop that does not compete in the food chain as it grows in rotation with wheat acreage and can also grow on marginal land.

The flight was estimated to have saved approximately 5.5 tons of net carbon dioxide emissions compared to the same flight powered by fossil fuel, and was hailed as a promising step toward helping the aviation industry reduce its carbon footprint. The camelina-based fuel also exemplifies a trend in biofuels production away from raw materials that can be used for food, in response to global protest and the recent UN recommendation to drop biofuel subsidies — but the world apparently isn't yet ready to give up on biofuels.

Global biofuel production is also taking flight, climbing by 17 percent in 2010 to reach an all-time high of 105 billion liters, according to researchers at the Worldwatch Institute’s Climate and Energy Program. The increase exceeded the 10 percent growth experienced in 2009, when production stood at 90 billion litres. Furthermore, biofuels provided 2.7 percent of all global fuel for road transportation in 2010 — an increase from two percent in 2009.

In another, more recent, milestone flight, Dutch company SkyNRG powered a four-hour Thomson Airways flight from Birmingham, U.K., to Arrecife in October, half with biofuel produced from used cooking oil, and half with petroleum-based fuel. "Sustainable biofuel has the potential to reduce aviation emissions by up to 80 percent in the long term," said Chris Browne, Thomson’s managing director.

Breaking down Worldwatch Institute figures reveals that the world produced some 86 billion litres of ethanol in 2010, 18 percent more than in 2009 while global biodiesel production rose to 19 billion litres in 2010, a 12 percent increase from 2009.

Worldwatch reported that in 2010 the US again led the world in ethanol production at 49 billion litres, or 57 percent of world output. Brazil was second, at 28 billion litres, a third of the world total.

Distant followers included China, Canada, France, Germany and Spain, each producing less than 2.5% of world supply. No other countries showed significant changes in ethanol production.

However, ethanol production in the U.S. grew by 8.4 billion liters in 2010, equaling the 2009 growth rate of 20 percent. Corn is the primary feedstock for U.S. ethanol, which supplies four percent of the nation’s road transport fuel. Ethanol-petroleum fuel blends for vehicles that are model year 2001 and newer can be as high as 15 percent ethanol (E15), though in most cases the percentage blended is much lower.

Due to unsteady production in Brazil, the U.S. became a net ethanol exporter for the first time in 2010, with 1.3 billion liters heading to the largest markets of Canada, Jamaica, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil.

Sugarcane is the only source of ethanol in Brazil, where production rose by 2 billion litres in 2010, a seven percent increase. This represented a rebound from the country’s three percent drop in production in 2009, even as adverse global weather led to rising sugar prices and was economically disadvantageous for sugarcane ethanol production.

Sugarcane-derived ethanol supplies 41.5 percent of the energy (48 percent of the volume) for light-duty transportation fuels in Brazil.

Brazil’s experience offers some valuable policy lessons, the report says. Among the most efficacious policies were Brazil’s requirement that the auto industry produce cars using blended biofuels, subsidies for biofuels during initial market development, the opening of the electricity market to renewable energy-based independent power producers, support for private ownership of sugar mills and stimulation of rural activities based on biomass energy to increase rural employment. Today Brazil is the only country that has been able to withdraw federal biofuel subsidies to allow the market flourish.

The report further stated that the EU remained the centre of biodiesel production, accounting for 53% of global output in 2010. Growth slowed there dramatically, however, falling from 19 percent in 2009 to just two percent in 2010. EU demand slowed due to uncertain policy frameworks, while production of biofuel in the region faces stiff competition from cheaper imports, according to the EU’s yearly Eurobserver report.

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