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Innovation Case Study: Biofuels and biorefineries

Can biofuels help reaching energy targets without compromising food production and security in Europe?

The implementation of biorefineries in EU to produce biofuels is gaining ground. Biorefineries are facilities with equipment to convert biomass into fuels, power, heat, and value-added chemicals. Except for the resources used, the biorefinery concept is analogous to petroleum refinery, which produces multiple fuels and products from petroleum.

The analysis of the innovation biofuels and biorefineries will involve two phases:

Phase 1

We will carry out an analysis of the criticism around the innovation biofuels and biorefineries. From scientific publications and reports, we will obtain an overview of the state of the art of the innovation. How did this innovation developed and for what purpose; what are the advantages and disadvantages of this innovation (if any), and whether this innovation generates controversy; what is the expected potential of the innovation to address the problem; whether the innovation is adopted in policy narratives; and whether the framing of the problem and the innovation as solution deal with the NEXUS-security.

Partners: WUR, ICTA and UT.

Phase 2

By means of quantitative story telling (QST) we will discuss the potential role of the innovation in the future. Using case studies and scenarios, we aim at identifying potential problems omitted so far, flag necessity to improve process of assessment and/or data availability, and launch recommendations for future assessments. The phase 2 of the innovation on biofuels and bio-refineries will consist of two studies:

Case study 1 »

The analysis of this innovation could be at two aggregated levels. We will first analyse two EU case studies on biorefineries: one using biomass produced within Europe and primarily in marginal lands to avoid competition with food production, and another one using biomass imported from elsewhere. This study would address the fundamental questions: differences of feedstocks used by the two biorefineries and their potential to produce energy; potential to avoid competition for biomass (such as feed or food) and for the resources to produce it (land, water, soil, labour, etc.); definition of marginal lands and competition with other uses (e.g. nature conservation) and/or economic activities (e.g. livestock rearing in marginal lands); advantages and disadvantages of externalization (e.g. transportation costs, affecting food security in third countries, etc); and/or potential of biofuels to substitute fossil fuels, meet energy targets and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Partners: WUR and UAB.

Case study 2 »

The follow up of the first case study would be represented by two applications of Quantitative Story-Telling: (i) at a European scale; and (ii) at the national scale. The first application will deal with the use of agricultural residues for bio-based energy production, focusing on the need of importing biomass when adopting minimum rates of biomass in energy plants and/or when defining minimum rates of biofuel in biofuels for transport. The second application will be based on the findings of a Sim4Nexus (a study carried out with participatory processes) contextualizing the narratives used to discuss the option of biofuels in the Netherlands. Combining these two application we want to answer the following questions: what is the potential for internal biomass-based energy and biofuel in Europe avoiding competition for land and water resources; what is the external dependency on biomass-based energy; what is the external use of land and water resources through minimum biomass-based energy policies?

Partners: UT, with help of WUR and UAB.

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Case study 2 - progress update

Work completed to date: Embedded heat content per unit of weight and unit of land in agricultural residues of five crops (sugar beet, sugarcane, maize, soybean, and rapeseed) are complete. Similarly, the biofuel yield using agricultural residues from the above mentioned five crops is nearing completion. The input energy per stages of biofuel production are calculated for both the bioethanol and biodiesel routes, differentiating the input energy into 3 categories: (1) fossil fuel used for non-energy purposes (i.e. plastic packaging of fertilizers; hydrogen source for ammonia production, etc.), (2) liquid fuel input, and (3) electricity input. Average water foorptint per ton of agricultural residues is calculated. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of nitrogen, soil management (direct and indirect) as well as combustion (stationary versus mobile sources) are calculated for bioelectricity and biofuel routes. 

Work planned: Calculate the maximum energy available from the agricultural residues of five crops per the type of output (bioelectricity, biofuel, heat). Apply the water footprint, land footprint and carbon footprint assessment methods to calculate associated water, land requirements and carbon emissions of the energy generated within the EU. Determine the scale of energy (also the embedded water and land resources) that the EU needs to  import to fill the gap between the available and required quantitiy to meet the minimum rates.   


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Where can you find more information about the case study?

You can know more about this case study in the Knowledge Hub section > "Innovation Cases"