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Studies barriers to biofuels

Published: 3 June 2015

The renewable fuel ethanol, E85, was a success when it was introduced in Sweden around 2005. A few years later ethanol was questioned by journalists, customers and politicians. In a new project, the crash landing for E85 will be studied in order to see what is preventing the use of biofuels.

Åsa Kastensson, researcher at Energy Engineering at Luleå University of Technology, will in a two-year project investigate the barriers for increased use of biofuels in the Swedish vehicle fleet.

– E85 is a very interesting case, what happened during those years and what can we learn from it in terms of new biofuels? If we are to meet the climate goals and get rid of fossil fuels, we have to use sustainable biofuels, therefore I believe that there still is a future for ethanol.

Sulphate caused problems

Today we talk a lot about electric vehicles and electric hybrids, while it is almost completely silent about the ethanol-powered vehicles. One explanation may be the engine problems that affected ethanol cars that made fuel injectors clog. There have also been articles about ethanol production displacing land resources for food production – ethanol versus food.

– From being an environmental hero you suddenly became someone that steals food from poor children! The debate is more nuanced now, and research shows that increased production of ethanol does not have to be in conflict with food production.

– Concerning the engine technical problems it was mainly due to an increase in sulfate amount of ethanol that came when they began importing European ethanol. There is also uncertainty about the climate benefits, but with today's production methods for ethanol the benefits will be big if you compare to fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel, and this is also guaranteed by the certification system put in place. Also, electric cars may well be less environmentally friendly than intended if they run on "dirty" electricity. The second-generation of ethanol is now coming, which is made of food waste, and waste products from the forestry industry, which makes it a very interesting fuel for Sweden.

Political instruments important

Åsa Kastensson also says that a car optimized for ethanol will have significantly lower fuel consumption compared with previous ethanol cars, because these were essentially optimized for gasoline. Hybrid vehicles with electric and ethanol is also a way to go. But an explanation of why the car manufacturers basically no longer invests in ethanol is also an uncertainty about what the politicians want.

– Car manufacturers are not investing in ethanol-powered vehicles, it all depends on what instruments there will be in the future and for the same reason, the demand among consumers declined. When conditions are worsened it sends a signal to customers that this is not something to invest in. Next year, it is only Volkswagen that will launch an ethanol car. Also, as it seems, Sweden will be forced to raise the energy tax on ethanol because the EU does not allow to overcompensate specific fuels. That sounds very strange in the current environmental debate and especially considering that Sweden's goal is to have a fossil-independent vehicle fleet by 2030.

The project "What are the obstacles for increased use of biofuels in the Swedish vehicle fleet?" is financed by f3, the Swedish knowledge center for renewable fuels, and is done in collaboration with Lund University and Lantmännen Energi.

– Our aim is to present facts, I will conduct interviews with representatives from the automotive industry, fuel industry, trade organizations, journalists and politicians. The study has a user perspective and hopefully our findings help to nuance the debate about ethanol and to avoid similar mistakes and myths in the future, says Åsa Kastensson.