20 Oct 2023
Transport-oriented biofuels innovation projects on the priority track of the European decarbonisation strategy
The European Commission is celebrating. With the adoption in early October of two of the remaining pieces of legislation – the revised Renewable Energy Sources Directive and the ReFuelEU Aviation Regulation – Brussels has not only finalised its ‘Target 55’ legislative package, which has succeeded in setting legally binding climate targets covering every key sector of the economy, but has also put the transport sector under the main focus of energy transition policies.
This achievement by the Commission, which demonstrates Europe’s commitment to delivering on its promises on the green transition – not without its ups and downs – comes at a crucial moment, just before the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in November and next year’s European elections.
However, from the moment the European Green Pact set the ambitious goal of making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the transport sector – which is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050 – was aware of its leading role in Europe’s energy transition. And it is now that the legislative framework finally accompanies this strong commitment.
The transport sector accounts for around 5% of EU GDP and employs more than ten million people across Europe, and is the backbone of the EU’s single market and supply chains. However, the sector also carries major risks for citizens, accounting for 25% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that has only been increasing in recent years.
The Commission has therefore taken action and has already set climate targets for all sectors of European transport: road transport, aviation and maritime transport.
Firstly, new enhanced CO2 emission performance standards have been adopted for new passenger cars and vans registered on the European market, which will have to be zero emission by 2035. In addition, the European Commission has proposed new CO2 emission targets for new heavy-duty vehicles from 2030, which will affect trucks, city buses and long-distance buses, but this proposal is still under negotiation with the European co-legislators.
The ReFuelEU Aviation initiative will oblige fuel suppliers to provide EU airports with an increasing minimum percentage of sustainable aviation fuels blended with paraffin. This ensures an ambitious timetable starting in 2025 with a commitment to make at least 2% of aviation fuels environmentally friendly, increasing every five years: 6% in 2030, 20% in 2035, 34% in 2040, 42% in 2045 and 70% in 2050.
According to this new standard, the term ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ will include synthetic fuels, certain biofuels produced from agricultural or forestry residues, algae, bio-waste, used cooking oil or certain animal fats.
This legislation is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation by more than 60% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, and will bring additional air quality benefits by reducing non-CO2 emissions.
Finally, the FuelEU Maritime regulation encourages the adoption of renewable and low-carbon fuels to gradually reduce the average annual greenhouse gas intensity of on-board energy used by ships, starting at 2% in 2025 and reaching 80% in 2050.
This standard will improve the attractiveness and economic viability of ships, which will be more energy efficient; and of fuels and technologies, which will have low greenhouse gas emissions.
The above targets will apply to ships of over 5,000 gross tonnage calling at EU ports and cover CO2 emissions and energy used respectively in EU ports and on intra-EU voyages, and half of the emissions/energy used on international voyages.
Biofuels: innovation is key
The European Commission’s technology-neutral approach to the legislative reforms required by the transport sector has allowed a wide range of R&D and innovation projects to flourish, aimed at bridging the remaining transport gap and advancing the energy transition. And of all the solutions proposed, biofuels stand out as one of the options that offer the most guarantees for the future.
Biofuels are renewable fuels that are produced from natural resources and biomass, and can be obtained from various thermochemical (e.g. combustion, pyrolysis or gasification) and biochemical (e.g. anaerobic digestion or fermentation) processes.
The energy applications of biofuels are equivalent to those of fossil fuels, i.e. they can generate energy for use in transport. However, they have many advantages over traditional fuels, such as the fact that, because they are made from organic matter, they are able to synthesise the carbon dioxide they generate during combustion, thus minimising carbon and sulphur emissions. This makes them less polluting. In addition, they are sustainable as their raw material is inexhaustible. Finally, they are efficient and highly cost-effective energy sources.
However, they still face certain barriers – such as their limited availability – which limit the development of their full potential for the decarbonisation of the transport sector. The challenge is to ensure that biofuel production can increasingly displace fossil fuels. And this is where the projects financed by the European Union come into play, which aim to provide efficient and replicable solutions on a European scale based on various innovations and technical advances: it is a question of achieving the same thing, but through improved formulas.
At BIOPLAT, the Spanish Technology and Innovation Platform ‘Biomass for the Bioeconomy’, we are aware that innovation and research are the way to reduce costs and increase the efficiency of these biofuels, which in the medium to long term will have an impact on their definitive penetration in the market.
For this reason, we actively participate in the communication and dissemination of several of these projects:
This is the case of CARBIOW (Carbon Negative Biofuels from Organic Waste), a project funded by the European Union within the framework of the Horizon Europe Programme that aims to establish an efficient and scalable process to convert the Organic Fraction of Municipal Solid Waste (OFMSW) and other solid organic waste that is difficult to use, into biofuels. For this, pure oxygen (nitrogen-free gas) will be used in combustion and gasification to produce clean syngas with the ultimate goal of producing a cleaner, denser, carbon-rich, dry and homogeneous solid biofuel for the maritime (alcohol production) and aeronautical (paraffin) industries.
Or HYFUELUP (Hybrid Biomethane Production from Integrated Biomass Conversion), a pioneering project funded by the European Union’s Horizon Europe Research and Innovation Programme, which aims to develop an advanced, innovative and competitive demonstration concept for large-scale clean biomethane production.
This will be achieved by gasification and methanisation of renewable dry digestate sludge and local lignocellulosic waste, such as crops, low-cost biogenic waste and by-products.
The biomethane produced will be liquefied and used to decarbonise long-distance road freight and maritime transport. In fact, this biomethane will be destined for use in areas not covered by traditional distribution networks, accelerating the introduction of renewable gases in these two key sectors and thus contributing to the EU’s energy transition.