It Is Not About Electric Cars vs. Biofuel

Electric cars are shaping urban mobility faster than any technological change in the past 50 years.

Written by: Pekka Pekkala — January 2017

Tesla is probably the best-selling brand in the field, but the competition is getting fierce and it is coming from new and old companies. The Chinese startup Faraday Future announced its version of an electric supercar at the beginning of 2017. At the same time, old players like Ford and Volkswagen are announcing ambitious plans to start manufacturing electric cars in the next decade.

Electricity is a great future energy source for new cars. However, the size and capacity of batteries is a problem for heavy-duty, long-haul road vehicles, marine vessels, and airplanes. For these problems, the answer is not just more efficient combustion engines but also biofuels, preferably made from recycled biomass-rich materials. This will be a part of the global shift towards a low-carbon circular economy, which has started in Europe and is accelerating worldwide.

Smart mobility has a key role to play in the development. Physical transport can probably be partly replaced by virtual mobility. There will still be a need for transporting people and goods in the real world; consequently, we need low-emission public transport. The Euro VI emission standard has brought down the regulated emissions of all heavy-duty vehicles significantly. It introduced new particle number emission limits, stricter OBD requirements and new testing requirements for off-cycle and in-use emissions. Euro VI vehicles, in combination with renewable fuels, are a really good solution.

Reducing 90% of transportation emissions in the Helsinki Region

Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) has been at the forefront of taking environmental performance into account when procuring bus services. There are some 1300 buses serving the Helsinki region, the number of low-emission Euro VI vehicles, and the prevalence of biofuel use, are increasing rapidly. One long-time partner has been the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Reijo Mäkinen, director of transport services at HSL:

“We are one of the world leaders in using biofuel, thanks to VTT. Around 10 years ago, we realised that Neste was starting to manufacture drop-in biofuels on a large scale and we started field-testing in the Optibio project together with VTT in 2007, running buses with biofuel mixes from 30 to 100%. Now we are reaping the results from the project and going from testing to full-scale implementation,” says Mäkinen.

In 2016, 30% of the fuel used by Helsinki Region Transport was biofuels; in 2017 the goal is 50% and 90% in 2019. At the VTT vehicle emission test facility, which is suitable for full-size vehicles and real-world duty cycles, Mäkinen has discovered some unexpected perks of biofuel.

Helsinki Region Transport will meet its ambitious goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 90% from 2010 to 2025 with a combination of biofuels and electric buses.

“Advanced renewable diesel burns much cleaner than traditional diesel. There are fewer nitrogen oxides and less particulate matter, even with our Euro V emission buses, which means less black smoke from the tailpipe of the bus.”

Helsinki Region Transport will meet its ambitious goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 90% from 2010 to 2025 with a combination of biofuels and electric buses. By 2025, one third (approximately 400 units) of the fleet will be electric buses. This calls for a whole “ecosystem” of charging stations, which will be a big change compared to the more “independent” diesel buses.

VTT is also helping with electricity: e-buses are built by Linkker, a VTT spin-off company. This shows how VTT is not taking political sides in any debate but allows research, performance and facts to decide what technologies to apply in modernising traffic and meeting emission goals.

Finnair adding biofuel to kerosene mixture

In aviation, electricity is not a viable option due to battery sizes and capacities. But because of the volume, even small things matter. Kati Ihamäki, the director in charge of sustainable development at Finnair, the Finnish airline company, says that Finnair is aiming for biofuels.

“Our first goal is to use, for example, 2% of biofuel in our kerosene mixture for all the flights from our home base in Helsinki. One of the biggest problems right now is the price: biofuels are three times more expensive than traditional fuels and the airline industry is very price-competitive.”

The company does their own emission measurements, but VTT oversees modeling of the whole traffic system emissions and forecasts. As a research partner, VTT also leads the traffic group at the Climate Leadership Council (CLC). One of the projects inside the CLC is to create a Green Hub from Helsinki-Vantaa (HEL) Airport. This would mean that airlines could fuel their planes with renewable jet fuel or a mixture of biofuels.

Senior Advisor Dr. Kai Sipilä and Research Professor Nils-Olof Nylund of VTT are proud of the work they have done with Finnish partners. If you need to know how your business is affected by the Paris Agreement at the UN Climate Conference, the EU 2030 Energy Strategy or by local government programs in Finland, these are the experts to see.

VTT’s three paths to biofuels

Professor Nylund sees the use of biofuels as a natural addition to other solutions needed to cut emissions: “In Finland, the government goal of reducing traffic emissions by 40% by 2030 is a demanding task. Since replacing two thirds of the cars with electric vehicles is not an option, there is a demand for biofuels as well.”

VTT is approaching the problem of producing biofuels in three different ways: fast pyrolysis, gasification and biotechnical fermentation. In fast pyrolysis, you convert solid biomass residues to high-density liquid bio-oil. Gasification creates second-generation liquid biofuels from indigenous and renewable sources. Fermentation processes are used to create lignocellulosic bioethanol from diverse sources of raw materials.

Different methods are needed to solve distinct problems in each biofuel case. In Finland, any side stream from the large forest industry sector is potentially an important source for biofuels. In other, more farming or livestock-heavy, countries the key could be a side stream for those industries. There is no single magical solution for creating biofuels for everyone. It must be researched and developed for the available resources.

With the success of renewable paraffinic diesel, currently made via hydrotreatment, it has been proven that there are ways to produce true drop-in alternative biofuels that do not need modifications to the distribution infrastructure, fuel storage or vehicles. But there is still much work to do to increase the sustainable feedstock base and to develop new and improved conversion processes to meet the ever-increasing demand for sustainable biofuels. This is something VTT is working on with its partners.

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