How we’re going to keep our transport going and keep ourselves warm in the future is a topic for discussion that can so easily become overheated – no pun intended – because of the range of sometimes diametrically opposing views on issues including good old climate change, peak oil, shale gas, impact on food supplies and so on and so forth.
Looking this month at transport it seems inevitable Scotland will end up with a mix of vehicle types including battery electric, internal combustion engines, hybrids and fuel cell/electric systems as they develop.
Fuel cells and internal combustion engines can also be fuelled by hydrogen, butanol, methanol, bio diesels and even ammonia as well as other fuels or combinations of fuels such as diesel “enhanced” using hydrogen injection.
LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) may figure more in the potential mix if – and it’s a big if – shale gas is as plentiful as claimed and comes on stream quickly enough. So, there’s plenty to choose from.
Internal combustion engines are, of course, devices that are well understood by your local friendly mechanic and have an established support infrastructure.
They are also already becoming considerably more efficient and cleaner. Witness Ford’s latest generation 1 litre, 3-cylinder, turbo-charged EcoBoost engine. The official fuel economy figure for the 123bhp unit is 56 miles per gallon.
So far in Scotland, development of new fuels has been very limited compared with our competitors.
But there has been some progress and for example, Prof Martin Tangney, director of the Biofuel Research Centre at Napier University in Edinburgh has developed a process to produce bio-butanol.
Butanol has a good 30% more energy than ethanol and you can use it without having to mechanically modify the engine which is a big plus.
We also have the BioMara project which is a collaborative EU-funded exercise based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) working with seaweeds which can be used to generate methane via anaerobic digestion or ethanol by fermentation.
Seaweeds are a form of algae and in a trial at Glenturret distillery, a small company called Scottish BioEnergy has demonstrated algae-based reactors can capture CO2 from flue gas.
Similar but much larger scale trials are now being undertaken in the US and Australia.
The latter is running a trial using algae to capture CO2 from a coal-fired power station and will turn the product into fuels and protein. In short, adding value to the CO2 rather than just storing it. I like that.
Importantly though, Scotland also has Argent Energy, which is a major producer of bio-diesel using old chip fat, rendered abattoir waste and out-of-date packs of meat. Bio-diesel from such sources is an evolving and important technology.
Now this is all really good stuff but there is a lot more that can and should be done and importantly this has been recognised by the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise.
So what’s next?
Under the auspices of the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board, a Biofuels Working Group, made up of industry, academic and public sector, managed by the renewables group at Scottish Enterprise, has agreed a set of recommendations for the near-term (up to 2020) development of biofuels in Scotland.
These recommendations are based upon the results of commissioned research and analysis and discussions with key stakeholders in the Scottish biofuel sector and having been approved by Scotland’s energy minister Fergus Ewing will now go forward.
The key near-term opportunities identified are:
Argent Energy could rapidly expand production of Bio-Diesel to accommodate additional waste oil and grease feedstock including Used Cooking Oil (UCO) and reclaimed oils and grease from Wastewater Treatments Works. Scottish Enterprise will now work with Argent to help make this happen.
Energy crop trials on poorer land:
There is a surplus of poorer land in Scotland. Several hardy energy-rich crops such as Camelina and Reed Canary grass should be trialled within the next year in Scotland to assess their potential as a biofuel feedstock. Camelina (a plant from the mustard family) has been used in the US to produce a bio kerosene for use as an aircraft fuel but in Scotland it may be more beneficial to develop it as a sustainable heating oil feedstock.
The aim is to explore exploitation opportunities for using synthetic biology as an enabling technology for biofuel development. I was made very aware of the value of synthetic biology recently when an American company demonstrated bacteria that had been genetically modified to eat sugar and produce pure biodiesel.
To support this and other work, an assessment will be made of the feasibility of establishing facilities to enable Scotland to develop technology from laboratory scale to a commercial offering. This might include large-scale fermentation test facilities which would promote research and development of novel biofuel processes and techniques, and help to anchor companies in Scotland.
Longer term (towards 2030 and beyond) opportunities identified included looking beyond existing feedstocks in Scotland at the development of energy-rich algal strains suitable for growing in closed containers using artificial lighting, waste heat and CO2 as it could provide an economic breakthrough in biofuel production and be used as a form of carbon capture.
In addition though, it is important to remember the potential for hydrogen to be used among other things as a fuel either directly in internal combustion engines and gas turbines, as an “additive” to enhance or initiate the combustion of other fuels or as a feedstock for ammonia which itself can be used as a fuel and makes the hydrogen easier to store.
In fact, hydrogen production and the manufacturing of ammonia might also be considered as an energy storage mechanism for wind turbines. This would involve the development of large scale offshore electrolysers.
There is now a lot more going on in this sector in Scotland than there used to be and it’s hoped that initiatives like this will spark more innovation – perhaps in technologies we haven’t thought about yet – and investment. It’s a good news story I am happy to have been involved in through my membership of the Energy Advisory Board.