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Within the scope of this research, we will assess one of the ‘green’ initiatives that is being proposed, and, in some countries, already implemented – using biomass and hydrogen to replace the traditional fossil fuel. As of now, the most feasible option of introducing biofuels to the transport sector is blending with conventional fuels. For economic reasons, energy companies hesitate to set up the completely new infrastructure necessary for powering vehicles run solely on biofuels. Pure methanol also requires modifications at the fueling stations and the distribution network (use of stainless steels and modified plastics and coating technologies, new refueling nozzles, etc.). (Edinger et al 2005) Blending methanol or ethanol with conventional fuels is a low-cost opportunity of introducing renewable resources such as biomass (and also wastes) to the fuel market. This paper, by referring to a number of scholarly articles and publications, analyzes the feasibility of biomass and hydrogen replacing fossil fuel and lessening the America’s dependency on non-renewable energy resources.
Biomass in the form of fuelwood, agricultural residues, dung, and bagasse provides 14 per cent of the world's primary energy (equivalent to 25 million barrels of oil per day). In developing countries – where it contributes approximately 35 per cent to all energy consumed – biomass is predominantly used as a non-commercial fuel. Modernization of the use of biomass is taking place through the conversion of biomass into liquid and gaseous high-quality fuels, such as ethanol from sugar-cane and low BTU gas for combustion (Daly 2004).
Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is produced from fermented sugar-cane juice on a large scale in Brazil, and used as a substitute for gasoline in automobiles. Approximately 200,000 barrels per day of alcohol are in use, reducing by 50 per cent the amount of gasoline needed for Brazil's 10 million automobiles. Ethanol is an excellent motor fuel: it has a motor octane of 90, which exceeds that of gasoline, and its use in higher compression engines (12.1 to 1 instead of 8.1 to 1) compensates for its lower caloric content (Flavin and Lenssen 2005).
The expansion of the sugar-cane plantations from less than 1 million hectares to 4 million hectares between 1975 and 1990, and the nearly 400 processing plants needed to produce large amounts of alcohol, have resulted in the creation of approximately 700,000 jobs. The environmental problems encountered initially in the distilleries, such as disposing of liquid effluents and bagasse, have been solved by converting the stillage into fertilizers and bagasse into a fuel for electricity generation (Daly 2004).
In addition, the substitution of the gasoline that would otherwise be consumed avoids emissions of 9.45 x 106 tonnes of carbon per year, which corresponds to 18 per cent of all carbon emissions in some countries like the US.
The amount of bagasse (and other agricultural residues) remaining after ethanol production is estimated to be 4 x 106 tonnes of dry matter, a significant portion of which is being used or could be used for electricity generation. Ethanol from sugar-cane is also used in Zimbabwe, and could play an important role in Cuba and other sugar-cane-producing countries.
Burning fuelwood, bagasse, and other agricultural residues to produce steam and generate electricity is a well-known technology in use in many countries. In the United States some 8,000 MW of electricity are generated per year (European Commission 1999). Present systems frequently use low-pressure boilers and their efficiency is usually below 10 per cent. The simplest improvement possible is to use condensing-extraction steam turbines (CESTs) and higher pressures. Efficiencies of up to 20 per cent can be reached this way.
Advanced technologies have been proposed to convert solid biomass into a low-BTU gas through gasification and use this gas to power gas turbines. Efficiencies higher than 45 per cent can be expected from a biomass integrated gasifier/gas turbine (BIG/GT) system. The merit of BIG/GT systems would be the ability to provide such high efficiencies in small units, in the range suitable for economical use of biomass (20–100 MW) (Flavin and Lenssen 2005).
In a project in progress in Brazil for a 25 MW demonstration plant with the financial support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) General Electric has adapted their aero derivative turbines for the low BTU gas to be used and TPS Termiska Processer AB, a Swedish company, has developed air pressure gasifiers. Once developed and fully tested the technology could be used worldwide. Producing fuelwood in large “energy farms” will be particularly significant to provide a basis for rural development and employment in developing countries (Weiss et al. 2000).
This is a case in which multinational companies have developed the necessary technologies for use in a developing country, thus opening a market for their products. It is an example of a ‘green’ activity where international donors plus multinational companies join forces in stimulating development in a developing country. In the pilot plant being built in Brazil with a World Bank loan, Shell Brazil and local electricity companies are shareholders.
Fuels from renewable energies help to achieve the climate protection goal in the long run. Shell predicted, according to scenario analyses, that after 2050 there will be 50% renewable resources in our energy portfolio (Weiss et al. 2000). With today's technology, we are able to produce various fuels from renewable resources such as hydropower, wind and solar energy or biomass. Methanol (as well as ethanol, dependent on the local biomass situation) and hydrogen are exceptionally well suited for production from CO2 -neutral or CO2 -free sources and may be used in internal combustion engines as well as in fuel cell vehicles (WEC 2003).
For reasons of low-cost and regional availability, biomass represents an important resource for providing energy for stationary applications (heating, cooling, electricity etc.) but also for the transport sector. It is interesting to see that biomass resources are considerably large and are not being tapped to the maximum in most continents with the exception of Asia. Large Asian countries today exploit biomass resources in a non-sustainable manner (i.e., to a scale that leads to soil erosion and deteriorating land qualities). North America's biomass reserves cover immense quantities of wood, whereas South America and Africa consider that their greatest potential in energy is crops growing under beneficial solar conditions (WEC 2003)
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Searching for the fuel of the future, several companies of the German automotive industry (BMW, DaimlerChrysler, MAN, Volkswagen) and energy companies (Aral, Deutsche Shell, RWE/DEA) are working together in coordination with the German federal government on the project “Transport Energy Strategy” (TES).
The target of this partnership project is to develop a strategy supported by the government and industry to implement a high-coverage infrastructure for one or, at maximum, two alternative and future-oriented fuels in order to achieve a leading position in the area of alternative fuels and innovative drive systems, to reduce road transport dependence on crude oil, to protect limited natural resources, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide. A detailed and concurrent database was developed containing emission data, efficiencies, and costs of more than 70 paths for fuel production, processing and transport.
TES assessed fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG), liquid natural gas (LNG), compressed gaseous hydrogen (CGH2), liquid hydrogen (LH2 ), methanol (MeOH) and dimethyl ether (DME). These fuels can be produced from biomass, nonbiogenic wastes, and natural gas as well as from renewable and fossil electricity. The use of coal and subsequent CO2 sequestration has not been assessed. Nuclear power has been regarded only in the context of the German electric power portfolio, not as an explicit energy input to alternative fuel production. The German federal government has agreed upon outphasing nuclear power within the coming years (WEC 2003).
From these diverse resources, fuels such as methanol, hydrogen, or synthetic (“designer”) fuels can be derived and used in internal combustion engines (ICE), fuel cell (FC) vehicles, or hybrid vehicles that combine ICE and FC drive systems (Commission of the European Communities 2001).
In a first step, potential renewable resources for fuel production in Germany and in the European Union were assessed. TES assumed that 50% of actual renewable resources have to be reserved for use in the stationary sector (industry, residential households, electricity) and that 50% could be used for fuel production in the transportation sector. Furthermore, energy crops within the European Union have not been evaluated. Biomass potentials are based on agricultural, residential and industrial residues (Edinger and Isenberg 2005).
TES results indicated that for the German transport sector, up to one-third of the passenger car fleet could be operated with fuels from renewable resources (WEC 2003). This, of course, does not imply cost-effectiveness. However, since mineral oil taxation is exceptionally high in Europe, there is an opportunity to provide fuels from renewable resources at today's market prices to the customer, depending on an appropriate political framework.
In order to have comparable results, reference vehicles have been defined and used for the evaluation process in TES. For a reference compact car and a reference long-distance truck (sensitivity analyses for both internal combustion technologies and fuel cell systems were conducted), tank-to-wheel efficiencies With these vehicle- and fuel-specific data series, various fuels have been compared and evaluated. After the preselection process, methanol, hydrogen and natural gas are further assessed especially in regard to ecological and macro-economic issues. The TES target is to determine one alternative fuel during the year 2001 and to develop a strategy for market introduction. In the further process, TES is to be enlarged to the European level (Commission of the European Communities 2001).
During the industrialization period, fossil fuels have dominated our energy system due to their high energy density, transportability, and low-cost production. Today, the mobility sector is largely based on liquid fuels providing sufficient range to passenger cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, aircraft, ships, and railroads on non-electrified tracks (Edinger and Isenberg 2005).
For crude oil and natural gas extraction, fuel refining, and transportation as well as for constructing renewable power units, energy losses occur that have to be evaluated in a life cycle analysis of fuel production chains. The energetic input varies for different fuel types depending on the input energy source and production and refinery processes. In some cases, by-products such as products for the chemical industry or surplus heat and electricity are produced and can be used for additional purposes, resulting in monetary and energetic benefits for integrated production processes (Daly 2004).
Numerous studies have evaluated ecological and economic criteria and data for well-to-tank (the complete fuel production chain) and well-to-wheel (the total life cycle including both fuel production and energy conversion onboard a vehicle) emissions and energy consumption. Table 1 compares fossil fuel and renewable fuel production paths.
Table 1 Selected Fossil and Renewable Fuel Production Paths
Use of Exhaustible Energy
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Cost Estimate before tax
(US cent/liter gasoline equi.)
Methanol (from Natural Gas)
Hydrogen (from Natural Gas)
Methanol (from Wood)
Hydrogen (from Renewable Electricity)
Source: Commission of the European Communities (2001), EU Commission proposal to the EU Council on Biofuels, Brussels, EU Commission.
Fossil fuels use more exhaustible energy than fuels from renewable resources such as waste wood, biomass, and renewable electric power. Greenhouse gas emissions are considerably lower, in some cases near zero, for renewable fuels, depending on the use of either fossil or renewable process energies for primary energy harvesting and subsequent fuel production.
Renewable energies continue to struggle with comparatively higher cost than fossil resources. As long as environmental benefits are not addressed in the cost and price of renewable resources (e.g., through ecological taxation) fossil fuels feature lower production cost. However, in some cases such as methanol from waste wood and other residues or hydrogen from water power or off-peak excess power, costs are but a factor of 1.5 to 2 higher than fossil fuel production cost, still under pricing taxed fossil fuel costs. This fact gives rise to the discussion that fuels from renewable resources should be exempted from mineral oil and ecological taxation, thus creating a viable market option for environmentally benign fuels to the transportation sector (Flavin and Lenssen 2005).
An option of introducing renewable resources to the transport sector is blending with conventional fuels. For economic reasons, energy companies hesitate to set up the completely new infrastructure necessary for powering hydrogen vehicles. Pure methanol also requires modifications at the fueling stations and the distribution network (use of stainless steels and modified plastics and coating technologies, new refueling nozzles, etc.). Blending methanol or ethanol with conventional fuels is a low-cost opportunity of introducing renewable resources such as biomass (and also wastes) to the fuel market.
In conclusion, it should be noted that biomass gasification not only serves for future fuel production, but also solves the problem of waste disposal. Besides wood and organic wastes, the gasification plants could convert old tires and toxic wastes into a synthesis gas that can be processed to liquid fuels such as synthetic biodiesel or bio-methanol (European Commission 1999). Gasification neutralizes toxic heavy metals by binding them in non-toxic slag that could be used for road construction or deposited. Conventional biodiesel, synthetic biodiesel, and bio-methanol are suited for both internal combustion engines and specific fuel cell vehicle technologies. These carbon dioxide reduced fuels can be used as pure fuels as well as be blended with conventional fuels such as gasoline and diesel in order to eliminate necessary engine modifications and costly changes in the refueling infrastructure.