by Paul Evers
First published in Super Seven magazine Netherlands
Did you believe that the obligatory addition of biofuel to petrol and diesel does not lead to less, but to more CO2 emissions? Experts do. Brussels politicians now do too. The admixture percentage may therefore drop in the long term instead of going up.
Former Shell employee and specialist in fuels and motor oils Paul Evers explains:
Saving the climate by adding biofuel? Brussels politicians no longer seem to
to believe so.
Biofuels are mainly made from plants that release CO2 from the atmosphere during their growth. This can be the same amount of CO2 or even more compared to when it is burned. With that, the use of biofuel would be on balance
lower than the atmospheric load in comparison to the use of fossil fuels, which when extracted saved their CO2 from the atmosphere millions of years ago.
Ethanol in gasoline
There are multiple types of biofuels, solid, liquid as well as gaseous. One biofuel that has been used for many years is ethanol. Ethanol is made through fermentation of sugar, originating from sugar cane, sugar beet and grains.
To limit the import of oil, cars in Brazil have been using locally produced sugar cane ethanol for years. These cars are equipped with a small tank for petrol, as the vapor pressure of ethanol is too low for a cold start. So immediately after starting with petrol, the engine switches over to pure ethanol. Outside of Brazil modified cars are using a mixture of 85% ethanol and gasoline, known as E85. These cars do not require a separate tank for petrol. In the EU nowadays most gasolines contain 5 or 10% ethanol on which almost all "regular" petrol engines can run.
Vegetable oil is too thick
Stimulated by the agricultural lobby in Germany and France in the nineties, we saw the emergence of biodiesel made from rapeseed oil on the European market. Although Rudolf's very first diesel engine ran on vegetable (peanut) oil, vegetable oil it is not suitable for a modern diesel engine without extensive adjustments. The viscosity is about fifteen times higher than that of diesel and the ‘pour point’ of most plant oils is well above 0° C.
On its own, vegetable oil is far too syrupy to serve as fuel in modern diesel engines. The FAME process cuts the big vegetable molecules into pieces, creating a thinner more liquid oil.
Cutting up molecules
The reaction of vegetable oil with KOH and methanol breaks the major triglyceride molecules of the oil down into smaller pieces and esters shapes. These esters have a viscosity comparable with diesel and are therefore usable
in diesel engines. The generic name of this liquid is FAME, Fatty Acid Methyl Ester.
FAME in Europe
In Europe, FAME was initially mainly made from locally grown rapeseed (RME) supplemented with imported soy (SME). Although the reduction of CO2 is not 100%, due to emissions during transport and production, politicians consider the reduction sufficient enough to endorse its use.
“Even if we blow up four engines per year, it will still be cheaper.”
Through subsidies and excise duty exemption RME was considerably cheaper in Germany than diesel. Despite technical problems and other engine issues, caused by deviating properties and questionable quality of the fuel, RME became the fuel of choice. As a matter of fact, the price differential was significant enough for a large Dutch carrier to commission its drivers to refuel their trucks with German biodiesel as much as possible, stating: “Even if we blow up four engines per year, it will still be cheaper.”
From 2007 onwards it became mandatory in the EU to mix biofuels with petrol and diesel, starting at 2% with an annual increase of 1.25% towards a goal of 10% by 2020.
End of B100
Fuel suppliers are free to choose which biocomponent is added as well as in what ratio fuel is being mixed, as long as in terms of energy the mandatory percentage is reached. The compulsory addition of biofuel led to the reversal of the German subsidies and saw the disappearance of pure biodiesel (B100) from the market.
The global availability of rapeseed and soy is insufficient to meet the demand of the amount required for biodiesel. To fill the gap cheaper palm oil is being used. Palm oil is mainly produced in South East Asia. However, the way in which it is produced is disastrous for the global CO2 balance.
"This cannot be compensated through the use of biodiesel in 100 years"
From rainforest to fuel tank
Due to the construction of palm oil plantations in Indonesia in the last three years alone about 320,000 acres of rainforest has disappeared. The effect on the emission of CO2 is immense. Typically, the forest is burnt down, which produces a lot of CO2. In addition, the trees that disappear can no longer absorb CO2. The effect is compounded by the wet peat of the forest floor drying out, releasing yet another huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. "This cannot be compensated through the use of biodiesel in 100 years".
According to the organization for Transport & Environment over 50% of the palm oil imported into Europe is used to produce FAME.
Pure diesel is better
An investigation commissioned by the European Committee indicated that use of fuel with admixed palm oil methyl ester (POME) causes three times more damage than regular diesel. SME turns out to be twice as harmful, while RME is not doing much better. Calculations show that CO2 emissions of road traffic using pure diesel would be 4% less compared to the current mandatory mix.
Reduction of GreenHouse Gas (GHG) is indeed possible with biofuel, however not with palm oil.
Last year, Brussels decided to put a stop to the mandatory annual increase of the admixing percentage. The use of the most harmful biofuels will be phased out starting 2023. Of course, strong opposition of the biofuel industry and the still very influential agricultural lobby is to be expected.
Politics wouldn't be politics, if a back door was not created. The use of palm oil will be allowed, provided it was grown on small plantations using plots of land which had no prior destination. Of course! And who is going to verify this? There is no mention in the proposal about soy or rapeseed.
History repeating itself
Brazil once stated about the use of sugar cane ethanol as fuel, “In the calculation of the CO2 balance we do not take the effect of burning down trees in the Amazon forest into account, as this would have happened forty years ago anyway…”. Who knows in the end maybe everything remains the same?