Biofuel production technologies: status, prospects, and implications for trade and development

Feb 2008

Biofuels are drawing increasing attention worldwide as substitutes for petroleum-derived transportation fuels to help address energy cost, energy security and global warming concerns associated with liquid fossil fuels. The term biofuel is used here to mean any liquid fuel made from plant material that can be used as a substitute for petroleum-derived fuel. Biofuels can include relatively familiar ones, like ethanol made from sugarcane or diesel-like fuel made from soybean oil, or less familiar fuels like dimethyl ether (DME) or Fischer-Tropsch liquids (FTL) made from lignocellulosic biomass.
A relatively recently popularized classification for liquid biofuels includes “first-generation” and “second-generation” fuels. There are no strict technical definitions for these terms. The main distinction between them is the feedstock used. A first-generation fuel is generally one made from sugars, grains, or seeds, i.e., one that uses only a specific (often edible) portion of the above-ground biomass produced by a plant, and relatively simple processing is required to produce a finished fuel. First-generation fuels are already being produced in significant commercial quantities in a number of countries. Second generation fuels are generally those made from non-edible lignocellulosic biomass, either non-edible residues of food crop production (e.g., corn stalks or rice husks) or non-edible whole-plant biomass (e.g., grasses or trees grown specifically for energy). Second-generation fuels are not yet being produced commercially in any country.
Expansion of biofuels production and use also raises some concerns, most importantly the diversion of land away from use for food, biodiversity-preservation, or other important purposes. Added pressure on water resources for growing biofuel feedstocks is also of concern in many areas of the world.
This report provides information about biofuels for use in helping to understand technology related implications of biofuels development. The report seeks to provide some context for understanding the limitations of first-generation biofuels, to provide meaningful descriptions accessible to non-experts of second-generation biofuel technologies, to present salient energy, carbon, and economic comparisons between first and second generation biofuels, and finally to speculate on the implications for trade and development of future expansion in global production and use of biofuels.

By: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

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