Our transport systems are still largely dependent on fossil fuels. The depletion of fossil fuels, however, coupled with traffic growth, has led researchers to seek new sources. The European BIOCOUP project involves universities and companies from a number of European countries. The aim of this joint venture is to convert biomass into oil that can be used in existing refineries.
Scientists from the University of Twente are studying ways of producing oil from biomass that mainly consists of forestry and agricultural waste. This process is known as pyrolysis. "Pyrolysis renders biomass into liquid form. The product of this process, pyrolysis oil, is not yet suitable for processing in existing refineries" explains Dr Sascha Kersten. He heads the Thermo-Chemical Conversion of Biomass department at the University of Twente's IMPACT research institute." "First we have to remove most of the oxygen that it contains. In the European BIOCOUP project we are tackling this problem by mixing the oil with hydrogen, " adds Dr Kees Hogendoorn, project leader in this field.
Pyrolysis oil will only react with hydrogen at high pressure, high temperature, and in the presence of a catalyst. The resultant oil, however, can be fed directly into existing refineries. "This upgrading process produces a mixture of an aqueous fraction and an oil fraction. The oil fraction can go directly to the refinery" says Dr Hogendoorn. The drawback with using hydrogen is that it is very expensive. He goes on to explain that "We are therefore studying ways of improving efficiency, to cut the amount of hydrogen used to the bare minimum." The scientists are already on the right track. They recently applied for two patents on techniques that have yielded promising results.
Some biofuels are already under production, of course. Indeed, biofuels already make up 5% of the fuel that we use in our cars. "But these biofuels mainly use ethanol and sugar cane, which are known as edible or first-generation biomass" says Dr Kersten. "We work with next-generation biomass, which consists of forestry and agricultural waste. This is available in much greater quantities, and it imposes less of a burden on the environment. We are even researching the possibility of using paper sludge in pyrolysis."
Sascha Kersten anticipates that, by 2020, many more vehicles will run on biofuel than is presently the case. "However, we must remember that the development of electric cars is not standing still. This means that, by around 2050, biofuels will be mainly used for long-distance truck journeys and air travel. By then, electric vehicles will be the main form of passenger transport" predicts Dr Kersten.