What is biodiesel and what role does it play in the battle against climate change?

By: Simon Doray (c) 2021

Biofuels in general, and biodiesel specifically, are fuels made from a biogenic-sourced material and are known as renewable fuels by definition. They are used to displace fossil-based fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel in any internal combustion engine.

Biodiesel can be made from used frying oils recovered from restaurants or animal fats rendered from meat processing, but they can also be made from vegetable oils.

This alternative to petroleum can be used in any diesel engines such as trucks, buses, trains, boats, and less than 5% of diesel-engine personal vehicles. The other main biofuel is ethanol, used in gasoline vehicles – mainly personal cars. The adoption of ethanol is more widespread than biodiesel as it has been around for longer.

Biodiesel and biofuel

Unlike fossil-based diesel, biodiesel does not require a lot of energy to produce and hence when compared to its fossil-based counterpart, is less carbon-intensive. All fuels in Canada are analyzed based on a Life Cycle Analysis for Green House Gases (GHG) emissions from cradle to grave. This means that all aspects of biodiesel are considered, including the feedstock’s origin, the energy sources during production, the transportation of raw materials, and finished products. One main item is the origin of the raw material used. In the case of used cooking oils or animal fat, they are considered waste materials and would have emitted methane if left to decay in a landfill site. The avoidance of such weigh heavily in the carbon accounting done in a Life Cycle Analysis. Simply put, where fossil fuels extract carbon that the ground trapped for millions of years, biofuels recapture carbon that is already on the earth’s surface.

What role does biodiesel and biofuels play and why is it so important?

Transportation fuels generate approximately 40% of GHGs. In that regard, there are very few options available over the next ten years to reduce carbon emissions that match the extent that biofuels can deliver in GHG reductions. While electric cars are a nice option, the adoption rate is slow. It requires people to change vehicles, and the average age of the car fleet in Canada is close to ten years. Furthermore, electric vehicles can only effectively replace gasoline-fired personal cars, representing roughly 50% of GHG generated in transportation. The diesel engines of this world will be very difficult to replace with electric vehicles. The weight of the batteries and the effective range of the vehicles causes major issues in merchandise and personal transportations. There are some electric buses, but given the duty of a city bus, the cost of electrifying them is very high, and the adoption by transit commissions has been so far limited. And as far as long-haul merchandise transportation by truck or by train, the electrification solution seems limited. This is where biodiesel becomes a compelling option.

A “Bio Bus” that runs off Biodiesel

Why are biodiesel and biofuels not more widespread? Hint: The incumbents don’t like them!

Biofuel’s main advantage is that they can use the exact same and existing distribution network of conventional petroleum-based liquid fuels, including the service stations, and the distribution services of fuels to companies. They are already there, and they are everywhere, unlike electric charging stations or any hydrogen refilling station, or even liquified natural gas stations which need to be built out.

But more importantly, biofuels are usable in your car or your truck without modification. In that regard, biofuels really are a short-term option to deliver significant GHG reductions; the so-called low-hanging fruit.

The availability of the distribution network, the usability in the existing vehicle fleet and the significant GHG reductions based on Life Cycle Analysis are the real advantages that biofuels will deliver to societies in general and to governments that are falling behind on delivering their GHG reductions targets.

However, this causes two disadvantages: It requires large oil companies to adopt biofuels that are not to their advantage since it reduces the volume of the fossil-based fuels they produce. In fact, big oil has been the biggest opponent to biofuels by supporting negative campaigns such as the food vs. fuels campaign which, misled the general public to believe that biofuels were to blame for food rising costs.

The second inconvenience is the general public perception. Most people think that tailpipe emissions are what constitute the GHG. Therefore, they don’t see the point of using biofuels since it does not resolve tailpipe emissions. Biofuels do significantly reduce tailpipe emissions, but their biggest advantage lies in the full life cycle analysis. The only proper way to value environmentally any fuels is to analyze their associated emissions based on their full life cycle from cradle to grave. In that regard, biodiesel is the clear victor. Unlike its fossil counterpart, biodiesel uses very little energy to produce. Typically conventional diesel emits 90-95 grams of CO2 equivalent per Megajoule of energy content. Biodiesel can be anything from 20 down to a negative number, which implies that its use generates the avoidance of GHG, a concept that challenges the mind.

Innoltek Office

What is so great about Innoltek biodiesel?

Energy usage is exactly where Innoltek has struck. After studying where the energy inputs were in other typical waste-based biodiesel processes, Innoltek has reduced to its minimum energy input into the process to get the highest environmental-performance biodiesel. In fact, Innoltek’s animal fat biodiesel boasts a -37.6g of CO2 equivalent per MJ of energy contained in the fuel. This is a whopping 141% reduction relative to the diesel fuel it displaced. The biodiesel produced by Innoltek does not compromise on quality while using so little energy to be produced. It can be used in any diesel engine, such as by transit commissions and merchandise transport companies.

Nonetheless, Innoltek is still striving to reduce its carbon footprint even more and is now considering using only renewable energy sources in its process, which would make the facility become zero-emission.

Where is Canada relative to biofuels mandates and inclusion?

Biofuels are only adopted in the distribution channels if mandated by the government. Canada regulated the use of biofuels in 2010 and 2011 with mandates of respectively 5% in gasoline and 2% in diesel. The measure created some volumetric usage across Canada and is still in force. All gasoline sold in Canada contains 5% or more ethanol on average. In comparison, diesel sold in Canada contains 2% biodiesel or more, on average (or any equivalent renewable diesel). Such incorporation in the distribution network has created a reduction in GHG emitted by fuel usage. The regulation is called the renewable fuel regulation and is meant to mandate renewable fuels, which includes biodiesel. Nonetheless, it does not reward the usage of any biofuel that could show better GHG reduction. All renewable fuels are deemed equal.

The federal government is currently forecasting to implement a Clean Fuel Standard regulation requiring supplemental GHG reductions from the fuel producers and distributors in Canada. One way to achieve this is to incorporate a certain additional percentage of biofuels in the fuels distributed in Canada. This type of regulation is currently in place in California and British Columbia, which has yielded substantial GHG reduction results. It is very inclusive as it also captures the reduction in GHG achieved by using electric vehicles. Any alternative fuels would be less carbon-intensive regardless of their origin. It is known to be a regulation that is feedstock agnostic and process agnostic, yet that values all alternate and renewable fuels based on their carbon footprint. This regulation has the tremendous advantage of valuing the GHG reduction of any fuel properly. It should be in place in 2022 and designed to require increasing GHG reduction every year, some 20 million tons in 2030.

Provincially, all provinces west of the Ottawa river has adopted renewable fuel regulations that all have different particularities. British Columbia has the most advanced renewable fuels regulation that couples a mandated volumetric minimum and a GHG reduction objective. It has been considered as the reference regulation in biofuels in North America. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba all have regulations in place that mandate a volumetric use of biofuels with some particularities. Manitoba has recently increased its inclusion rate of biofuels to 10% in gasoline and 5% in diesel. These are the highest percentages in Canada. Ontario has had a regulation in place for both fuels, gasoline, and diesel since 2010 and 2013. Ontario’s regulation takes some complex form that achieves higher volume while stimulating the use of better biofuels. The Quebec government has just issued their regulation for low carbon fuels. It will require an average of 3% of biofuels in diesel that generate 70% GHG reduction.  It is set to begin in 2023.

What is the future of biofuels and what role will they play?

North America needs more clean fuel-type regulations that will drive significant GHG reductions. More regulations such as Clean Fuels Standard will increase the proportion of biofuels in fuels. One thing that was observed from states and provinces where Clean Fuels Standard exists is that the biofuels offered in these markets tended to be continually less carbon-intensive, which leads to the belief that these regulations drive innovative power within the manufacturing companies. In that regard, Innoltek has developed very good biodiesel, which boasts low carbon intensity and would benefit greatly from channelling its fuels into a properly structured market. This would, in turn, benefit society and help Canada reach their climate change action plan.

The world also needs more biofuels produced from waste streams. By offering interesting markets for these biofuels, innovation can properly organize the processes to develop products made from wastes that are currently not segregated and valorized, such as wood waste. Many untapped resources, such as some plastics, are not – or rarely – recycled now. Although plastic is not considered renewable because of the high content of petroleum that goes into its composition, diverting them from landfills and making fuels with them has some merits. It does reduce the carbon intensity associated with it since the petroleum has already undergone the extraction and refining phase.

CEO of Innoltek, Simon Doray

In conclusion, the battle against climate change is one that we need to fight with all the weapons we have. On the transportation side, biofuels are a large part of the solution in the coming decade. Fuels need to be cleaner now and for years to come, as long as there will be internal combustion engine vehicles on the roads, which exists beyond 2050. The other measures more commonly known, such as improved gas mileage thru hybrid technology, pure plug-in electric vehicles, buses, and hydrogen technology, will all play a role in their time for the decades to come.