Biofuels have hardly been out of the news recently, and just about everyone seems to have an opinion on whether they are our friend or our foe. One of the many groups joining the debate this month was The Royal Society - an independent academy promoting natural and applied sciences - which issued a warning at a conference it held in London on January 14.

Its researchers stated that biofuels had a potentially useful role in tackling climate change and energy supply problems - but it was up to the government to drive them in the right direction.

Setting out the findings from its Sustainable Biofuels: Prospects and Changes Report, The Royal Society warned that unless the government put the correct policies in place, biofuels may not be able to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gases. Worse still, it said biofuels could actually be environmentally damaging if their use wasn’t sufficiently controlled in a proper framework. It went on to suggest that biofuels should be developed as part of an integrated package of measures.

In one of many recommend-ations made about biofuels in the past few weeks, the report also cautioned the government on its Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which comes into force in April and will affect the mix of fuel being sold on UK forecourts.

The Royal Society stated: "The RTFO does not necessarily encourage the use of the types of biofuels with the best greenhouse gas savings. This is because, although the Obligation requires fuel suppliers to ensure that 5% of all UK fuels sold are from a renewable source by 2010, it does not contain a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Professor John Picket, who chaired the study behind the report, said biofuels could play an important role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the UK and on a global scale. But he said the RTFO needed to set a green- house gas target.

He added: "This will help encourage the improvement of existing fuels and accelerate the development of new ones. Without a target we risk missing important opportunities to stimulate exciting innovations that will help us cut our spiralling transport emissions. It is important we don’t see biofuels as a ’quick fix’."

== long-term investment ==

Among the other recommendations in the report was that the RTFO be extended for 20 years to stimulate the type of long-term investment needed to foster a strong UK biofuels industry. Without the development and research, it warned there was a chance we could end up becoming "locked in" to using inefficient biofuels.

Professor Picket stressed: "It is important to remember that one biofuel is not the same as another. The greenhouse gas savings of each depends on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used. So, indiscriminately increasing the amount of biofuels we are using may not automatically lead to the best reductions in emissions.

"While the RTFO is a reasonable start, unless certification is applied to the production of all biofuels and is a system used by all countries we will merely displace rather than remedy the potentially negative effects of these fuels."

The Society voiced its concerns days before MPs urged the government to abandon its biofuel targets until more research can be carried out.

On January 21, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) concluded that the government and the EU "should not have pursued targets to increase the use of biofuels in the absence of robust sustainability standards and mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change".

== environmental damage ==

In the report, Are Biofuels Sustainable?, the committee said that without such measures, some biofuels could lead to environmental damage - including the destruction of rainforests. It also urged the government to make sure its biofuels policy balanced greenhouse gas cuts with wider environmental impacts so that biofuels contribute to sustainable emission reductions.

It concluded: "Biofuels are generally an expensive and ineffective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other policies. Emissions from road transport can be cut cost-effectively, and with lower environmental risk, by implementing a range of other policies."

The EC wants a moratorium on biofuel targets, and says the government should instead concentrate on the use of sustainable biofuels like waste vegetable oil and the development of more efficient biofuel technologies for the future.

It also suggested a longer term view of biofuels. EAC chairman Tim Yeo stated: "Advanced second generation biofuels may have an important role in the future, but these technologies are some years away. The government should support their development by creating a stable investment climate out to 2020."

Two days after the MPs’ report, the EU set out its own ambitious goals for tackling climate change.

The proposals included setting a target to increase the amount of renewable energy used to 20% by 2020, with 10% of all fuel used in transport coming from biofuels by the same year.

In the European Commission’s Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package, the EU also confirmed its goal of cutting Europe’s carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. As its contribution, Britain must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 16%.

And for the final word on the subject for now, back to the Royal Society. Its response to the EU recommendations was positive, but it warned the targets set were very ambitious. The Royal Society’s president Martin Rees added: "For the UK, even a 15% target for renewables by 2020 will be a real challenge, given our current level of around 2%. But it is one we must strive to meet. If we are to make real progress towards climate change mitigation we will not only need renewables, but also an effort to improve energy efficiency, and urgent development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

"To implement these policies requires investment from both the public and private sector to build on the well-intentioned words."


=== Case study: Rocket fuels ===

Tony Prince and Hugh NcNeill run Rocket Fuels from an industrial estate near Bridgnorth, Shropshire.

The business currently produces about 30,000 litres of biodiesel per week, although the company is in the process of replacing its machinary and expects to increase capacity to 100,000 litres per week.

The biofuel is processed from used vegetable oil which the company gets from a local supplier - the supplier has a contract to collect the oil from local restaurants.

Rocket Fuels also has contracts with a couple of local farmers who supply rapeseed oil from their set-aside land.

Prince says the company gets a 20p rebate for each litre of 100% biofuel sold.

He adds: "We’ve been supplying the product for the past 18 months, mostly to local hauliers who are falling over backwards to get it. They seem desperate to get 100% biofuel for their vehicles."

According to McNeill, the production process at the site starts with the raw product being left to stand in a 36,000 litre oil tank which is double-skinned and bunded.

The oil is transferred to a pre-heat tank where it is heated to a maximum of 60ºC. It is then transferred to a bio-diesel processor, and sodium hydroxide and methanol are mixed together and added. After being left for about an hour, the mixture is put into a settling tank where the glycerol - the waste product - is removed.

Very little is wasted in the process - even the glycerol is sent to India to be made into products like soap and plastic, and Rocket Fuels receives 10p per litre for the glycerol.