The Big Question

Can bio-derived fuels and materials be developed at a sufficient scale to replace petroleum and meet growing demand while staying competitive?

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, a worldwide transition to low-carbon energy strategies for electricity, transport and industry is underway.

With the cost of fossil fuels increasing as supplies diminish, a low-carbon economy based on bio-derived fuels and materials could become the future of global energy production.

Professor Chris Greig

Director, UQ Energy Initiative;
Director, Dow Centre for
Sustainable Engineering Innovation

I expect biofuels to remain a niche player in the global market for decades to come –it’s a numbers game.

The world currently consumes around 3.3 billion tonnes of crude oil and 3.1 billion tonnes of natural gas. These are used to produce power, transportation fuels and a variety of industrial chemicals and materials. Bio-derived equivalents represent just a few per cent of this volume.

Of the biofuels used as a replacement for oil, much is currently produced from food crops, presenting a threat to food security as the global population grows. Those biofuels that are produced from more sustainable feed stocks tend to cost 3 to 10 times their petroleum-derived equivalents.

Catherine Macintosh

PhD student;
EAIT Faculty 3-Minute-Thesis
Winner 2016

I believe there is increasing technical capacity, given the diversity of potential feedstocks and versatility of emerging conversion technologies, for second and third generation
biofuels and materials. However, the processing cost is not currently competitive, with biofuels costing more than double that of petroleum fuels.

To reduce costs and scale up production, government needs to establish consistent, proactive biofuel and material policies and reduce support for the petroleum industry.

Stable government policy will attract venture capitalists to the sector, enabling the development and commercialisation of these biotechnologies. Technology maturation will reduce the processing cost and increase the potential for biofuels and materials to supply future consumer demands.

Professor John Quiggin

ARC Australian Laureate Fellow;
UQ School of Economics

At this stage, it appears unlikely that biofuels will make a major contribution to the decarbonisation of transport.

Existing biofuels are mostly derived from food crops, such as corn ethanol, and require substantial subsidies. Large-scale expansion of these fuels would generate fuel shortages. Potential alternatives such as switchgrass grown on
marginal land have yet to overcome technical obstacles. By contrast, the alternative of electric vehicles powered by renewable electricity generation is already here, and is rapidly becoming cost-competitive with internal combustion, particularly once climate and pollution costs are taken into account.

Professor Pete Halley

Head of UQ's
School of Chemical Engineering

After over 20 years of researching in this field, it’s clear to me that a mix of synthetic and bio-derived solutions will be required for humans to continue to live productively and sustainably. Biomaterials and biofuels will be an important part of the solution, but like all complex problems they are not the only solution.

The future sustainability of materials, fuels and energy will require a systems integration of a range of solutions, probably involving a range of different local solutions that best suit local conditions and resources. For example, a region with abundant gas reserves, mountains and rivers may favour a clean gas and hydroelectric solution.

It is very important to conduct a life-cycle assessment (or cradle-to-grave material and energy balance) on each proposed solution to determine which is best for the environment.
For example, it is not enough to say bio-derived materials will be better for the environment than a synthetic solution. It may be that a synthetic material that is recycled, requires less energy and produced less pollutants during its lifecycle than a crop-derived biomaterial that requires pesticides and tractor emissions during harvesting.

Image: Algal bioreactors in operation at the IMB Centre for Solar Biotechnology pilot plant at UQ’s Pinjarra Hills site.