Why energy matters

12 December 2014
Dr Sean Simpson
Dr Sean Simpson

With worldwide energy demand forecast to rise by up to 40% by 2030, low-carbon fuels are now seen as the only practical way to slow global warming. According to the International Energy Agency, at least a third of the fuel pool must be displaced by low-carbon fuel to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide from reaching a critical level.

"This means we have to find 450 billion gallons of low-carbon fuels, fast," says Dr Sean Simpson, Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of sustainable fuel company LanzaTech.

"This figure is derived from the fact that today we consume around 90 million barrels of oil per day. It is a fairly serious target."

Dr Simpson says the use of such fuels is being incentivised globally, with many governments mandating biofuel targets in the transport sector.

"It is anticipated that the global markets for environmentally sustainable alternatives will exceed US$100 billion by 2020, so finding scalable solutions that will safeguard the environment while not detrimentally impacting food supplies is essential."

He says that at present there are a limited number of ways in which low-carbon, or sustainable, biofuels can be produced at scale. They are the fermentation of sugars to create fuel ethanol and the conversion of oils into biodiesel.

"Let's be clear, these are the only mature technologies that we have available today. But we are developing processes that will allow us to access a broader array of feedstocks, and they include industrial waste gases and algae."

Ethanol, which Dr Simpson calls "the world's favourite biofuel", is produced in huge volumes globally, but half of the total (13.3 billion gallons) is made from corn in the United States and about a quarter (6.2 billion gallons) from sugar cane in Brazil. Biodiesel, which is derived largely from canola, soya oil, and some palm oil, contributes a further five billion gallons.

"Remembering the 450 billion gallon target, we get a sense of the mountain we still need to climb."

All of these feedstocks, Dr Simpson notes, are essentially farmed foods – the products of agriculture.

"They are both expensive and increasingly price volatile. And they come with this encumbrance of forcing us to make a decision between the dinner plate and the fuel tank. This is not an argument that is going to go away. It is a reality for these fuels."

If we are to scale renewable fuel production, it cannot be done at the expense of food, he says. At present one fifth of the world's sugar harvest is already used for fuel production and that contributes just six billion gallons towards the 450 billion gallon target.

"I'm no maths genius, but we are not going to get there with sugar. The other staggering thing is that our global population is going up, as is our fuel consumption. So right now we have a feedstock challenge."

New feedstocks and new low-cost technologies are needed and one of the most promising is based on ligno-cellulose, or woody biomass. Three pioneering plants designed to make ethanol from ligno-cellulose will be operational in the United States by the end of 2014. However, significant challenges remain, including high operational and capital costs, the difficulty of accessing and processing a range of feedstocks, and the inherently poor yield.

Another approach is to generate fuel from algae, or from photosynthetic bacteria. Neither of these techniques have impacts on arable land or food, but nevertheless both present greater challenges than ligno-cellulose are further from commercialisation.

Chicago-based LanzaTech, which was founded in New Zealand in 2005, has taken a different approach. Its core technology converts waste gases from steel mills into low-carbon fuels and high-value chemicals. The technology has been successfully trialled in a New Zealand pilot plant and at two pre-commercial scale plants in China. Virgin Atlantic is an uptake partner, says Simpson, and is committed to buy all the jet fuel LanzaTech produces.

"My personal view is that it is a misguided focus to concentrate on biofuels," he says.

"It is a very easy thing to sell politically, but it doesn't make any sense, because what we want to do is not consume biomass for the production of fuel, but to produce a fuel that emits less carbon. Policy should be much more technology agnostic.

"Bio is irrelevant. What is relevant is how the fuel performs in terms of its impact on carbon dioxide emissions because, as a society, our aim is to slow climate change."

Dr Simpson recently visited the Business School, where he gave the last of the Business School Energy Centre's Energy Matters presentations for 2014. This speaker series brings together some of the world's foremost thinkers, consultants and commentators to inform the energy debate in New Zealand.

Watch Sean Simpson’s full presentation (52:43)

For more information on the Energy Matters speaker series and to view past speakers, visit the Energy Matters website.