Biofuels and their benefits

Bio-methane, biodiesels, and biofuels in general are not entirely new technologies. Man-made fuels, and other fuels which are made from resources like waste and renewable vegetable fats have been around for some time. Although electrification may get a lot of the headlines, we understand that these biofuels have a clear role to play in Volvo Group’s plans for the future.

Three-pronged approach

Alongside providing alternative ways to move a vehicle or power a piece of equipment with zero tailpipe emissions – namely, rechargeable batteries or electricity-generating, hydrogen-powered fuel cells – there needs to be a sustainable solution that uses existing technology. In this case, that technology is the internal combustion engine. Because in order to make real change, innovation needs to be accessible as well as sustainable.

In this respect, biofuels present us with a great quick win – a way to reduce emissions immediately while electrification continues to be developed. Currently, more than 50% of all heavy-duty transportation could be electrified – so, biofuels represent a sustainable solution for those haulers that still cannot solve their transport application with battery or hydrogen electric, for reasons like load, distance, infrastructure or charging times. Additionally, not all transportation will be electric in the future, and electrification of the entire fleet will take time.

We’re committed to helping our customers run their businesses in the same kind of way they’re doing now, should they wish to – in a safe, sustainable, and more productive way. Whatever that business looks like. So for many, non-fossil fuels which can make the internal combustion engine more sustainable are a great way forward – and one which can be adopted quickly.

Biofuels: benefits and drawbacks

When we talk about “biofuels” we’re most often referring to two specific products – FAME and HVO. Each is a specific type of biofuel that can be seen as a functional replacement for diesel, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. But one thing that they both have in common is that they are produced from oils: vegetable oils, for example.

FAME – Fatty Acid Methyl Ester – is made from vegetable oils like rapeseed, which has undergone a reaction alongside methanol to produce a fuel that can be mixed with up to 7% diesel to work in all diesel engines and can even work in certain diesel engines on its own. FAME has plenty of benefits, not least in that it is inexpensive to produce, and entirely renewable. It also contains no aromatic compounds – undesirable elements in all fuel, that  produce soot when they burn and can lead to the degradation of engine components.

There can be drawbacks. FAME degrades quite quickly and when it does so, can produce a sediment that can effect engine filters. Secondly, given that FAME is made from rapeseed oil, there is a certain limitation to the resources that can be used to produce it – not least because of direct competition with the food industry, which also at present uses vast amounts of the oil. FAME also performs less well in low-temperature climates: making it less ideal for vehicles frequently working in or traversing the coldest parts of the globe. It contains oxygen too, leading to slightly higher NOx emissions.

Another commonly-referred-to biofuel, which is by definition not biodiesel but often referred to as such, is HVO, which simply stands for Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil. As the name suggests, this is a synthesis of vegetable oils and hydrogen – but it can also be made from other recycled fats, like old fryer oil, as well as oils from waste wood, or even non-vegetable oils from slaughterhouses.

HVO is often considered to be a more versatile alternative to FAME as it can be used without blending in all diesel engines. It’s also renewable, with a slightly larger but still limited source of raw materials. The fact that waste can be used means that it doesn’t compete directly with the food production industry, although a major source of oil for HVO is again rapeseed oil. Still, an increasingly large amount of HVO is being produced from recycled “waste” cooking oil – of which an estimated 3 billion gallons per year are produced in the US alone, according to the EPA.

The main downside of HVO is that it is slightly more expensive than FAME to produce. This, however, is balanced out by its versatility, the enormous potential in future production, and the fact that it does not age quickly and also works in cold climates – as well as being free from aromatics.


Bio-methane: waste not, want not

Bio-methane is another alternative fuel – this time, made from treated waste and sewage. It makes up another major part of the alternative fuels picture. To make bio-methane, an abundant source of methane is found: in this case, things like organic waste, manure and sewage. This is then treated through a process called anaerobic digestion, where bacteria are used to break the waste down, without any oxygen, mimicking the way that natural gas is formed underground. The biogas then needs to be cleaned to extract the biomethane, which can be used as compressed (Bio-CNG) or liquid (Bio-LNG) form when cooled down to temperatures of about -160 degrees C.

Bio-methane is a highly efficient fuel, with well-to-wheel emissions so low that it is often said to be a carbon-neutral alternative. However, it is relatively costly to produce – with much of the cost going towards small-scale production at a local level. With continued investment, development and research, this can change – and is, in fact, already starting to.

Biofuels are a crucial part of the road to net-zero, just as much as battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells. And although it may seem like the new technology is getting the lion’s share of the headlines, it’s an area in which real growth and development is being made. A sensible, sustainable solution that keeps the combustion engine running – for Volvo Group, and its customers.

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