Funding announced for research into making biofuels cost-competitive

A grant worth over £1.3 million from Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been awarded to our researchers to enable them to explore ways to make biofuels a sustainable and cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels in the transport sector.

The grant, entitled “Tailored Production and Utilisation of Sustainable Low Cost Lignocellulosic Advanced Biofuel Blends as Diesel and Petrol Substitutes: SusLABB” has been awarded as part of the EPSRC-SFI initiative to Professor Alison Tomlin (PI), Dr Valerie DupontDr Hu Li and Dr Andy Ross in partnership with Dr Stephen Dooley at Trinity College Dublin. The total value of the grant from EPSRC is £1,345,039 with a further contribution from Science Foundation Ireland to Trinity College.

Approximately 14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the transport sector, principally from petroleum derived liquid fuels. Transport therefore presents a key challenge in developing low carbon economies. 

Due to energy density challenges in developing alternative drive trains, or propulsion systems (such as electric motors or hydrogen fuel cell systems) for heavy goods, shipping and aviation sectors, societal reliance on liquid fuels is likely to continue beyond the near term. It is therefore crucial to produce liquid fuels with lower lifetime GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels. 

The EU through the Renewable Energy Directive requires member states to source more than 10% of transport energy from renewables by 2020, rising to 32% by 2030 in a push towards overall zero carbon goals by 2050. The revised Directive (RED II) requires all road transport fuels sold in the EU to include a minimum 3.5 % of "advanced biofuels" – liquid fuels derived from non-fossil feed stocks which are not in direct competition with food for land use, in order to improve the sustainability of the supply chain. 

To meet this requirement means, essentially, using lignocellulose, which can be a plant matter by-product such as waste straws and rice husks, as well as being sourced from energy crops such as miscanthus and woody biomass and other wastes. Making advanced biofuels cost competitive with fossil fuels, and with even first-generation biofuels (such as ethanol or biodiesel), poses challenges due to the inferior nature of lignocellulosic feed stocks. 

The overall aim of the project is to develop methodologies with as few as possible processing steps, as this offers greater potential for cost effectiveness. This can be potentially achieved by producing blends rather than requiring costly separation processes. The work will focus on developing fully tailored, advanced biofuel blend production processes which optimise blends and their production on the basis of a range of targets relevant to their production and utilisation. 

The work will focus on the production of blended biofuels, which can extend blend walls with fossil fuels, thereby promoting greater GHG reductions compared to single component biofuels, as well as reducing production costs and process complexity, whilst targeting fuel/engine compatible blends within the conversion process itself. 

It will involve a range of experimental work and modelling linking the tailoring of production process design with low emissions combustion targets. Each element of the work will be linked through a lifecycle based techno-economic sustainability assessment in collaboration with partners at Yucatan Autonomous University in Mexico to determine the optimal blend and process design configurations.