2015 - The Future of Biofuel

Production of biomaterials will grow faster than biofuels and increasing biofuel capacity is highly reliant on technology from innovative startups. These are some of the conclusions in a report just issued by Lux research on the biofuel and biomaterial markets.

Biomaterials can be used instead of plastics and polymers currently produced from petroleum, but at current capacity the materials can replace a mere 1 percent of plastics. Lux research expects this market to grow by a minimum of 17.7 percent per year, driven by big corporations. Petroleum is used in a bewildering array of products and packaging, but fluctuations in oil prices make it difficult for companies to predict the cost of materials. Bio-based fibers for textiles and acetate, used for things like pens and toothbrushes, dominate the bio-based materials scene, accounting for 39 percent and 24 percent of the current $10.7 billion market.

Biofuel is produced from materials like sugar and vegetable oils. It currently supplies just 3 percent of the world’s fuel needs but is still a $53 billion market. Production is dominated by ethanol and biodiesel, both of which are mainly blended with gasoline and diesel for use in vehicles. The Americas are the biggest producers of ethanol (as shown in the graph below). Both fuels have drawbacks; ethanol does not have a very high energy density and biodiesel has a low cloud point, i.e. the point at which a liquid begins to solidify. These fuels have also been controversial since growing the raw materials requires land which could be used for food production.

As a result, many researchers and startups are working on new fuels such as algae oil. The major problem with these fuels is scaling up production to a commercial level. The report predicts that by 2015 startups like Enerkem, which produces fuel from garbage, will start to realize their capacity ambitions. We previously wrote about Enerkem’s first industrial-sized plant which is being built in Canada.

Butanol is a new fuel with a higher energy density than ethanol. The report suggests that butanol companies such as Cobalt, Cathay Biotech, TetraVitae and Gevo all show promise.It also concludes that technical innovations coming from startups will have a bigger effect on increasing biofuel capacity than government increases in the blend rate (the percentage of vehicle fuel which can consist of biofuels). Lux research expects the biofuels market to grow by 7.8 percent per year to 2015.

One striking aspect of these markets is the geographical distribution of production. The Americas dominate ethanol production (89 percent of capacity) and Europe leads in biodiesel (60.3 percent) while Asia controls biomaterials (38.5 percent). The report expects this landscape to change by 2015, with the Americas growing strongly  in biomaterials and Asia catching up in biofuels. However, current growth rates will still leave the biofuels and materials markets at replacement percentages similar to today’s, with massive improvements in scale required for further growth.