The Austrian Biofuels Institute

Portrait and Interview: The Austrian Biofuels Institute / Werner Koerbitz
bridges vol. 17, April 2008 / Feature Article

by Caroline Adenberger

Austrian Biofuels Institute logoFounded in 1995, the Austrian Biofuels Institute (ABI) provides professional support for the development of liquid biofuels worldwide as an experienced competence center. ABI covers the many different and complex areas of knowledge related to liquid biofuels, through the specific experience of a great variety of members - ABI currently consists of a team of 45 international experts from 11 countries and five continents - striving to represent the best knowledge in their field of competence.

ABI functions as a competence center with synergistic effects, specifically for small- to medium-sized companies within the European Union-25, and also worldwide as a contact point to the Directorate Generals of the European Commission and other national and international organizations. This includes functioning as active and open networkers beyond any borders, as initiators for joint project work, and as project coordinators worldwide without any national restrictions.

Core areas of activity are target oriented research & development, dissemination & demonstration of acquired experience, lobbying for shaping adequate legislative measures, and transfer of project results into real life for promotion and market introduction of liquid biofuels - specifically Biodiesel and Bioethanol.

DI Werner Koerbitz
Werner Koerbitz

bridges spoke with Werner Körbitz, the chairman of ABI, about the biofuels hype, the promises and the perils of global agribusiness, and the challenges that biofuels face both on the research bench and in the consumers' market.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: What are the current key trends in the development of biodiesel worldwide? Do you see different directions in research and technology in Europe compared to North America?

Werner Koerbitz: Generally one can observe that in nearly every country in this world biodiesel activities have started or are already in an industrial implementation phase. Some initiatives, however, have to be qualified as a type of "gold-rush" project driven by the vision of fast profit. Usually this does not happen in the easy way imagined.

Solid and detailed planning of a biodiesel production facility is, however, the usual prerequisite for sustainable commercial success. The key crucial factors are:

  1. Assurance of a reliable feedstock supply scheme for both volume and cost:  the sustainability of the produced feedstock is becoming a major factor in politics and public opinion;
  2. Assurance of long-term take-off agreements for legally assured fuel markets;
  3. Selection of a highly efficient process technology with yield levels of approx. 99 percent (measured as total of triglycerides and free fatty acids) thus achieving the highest output of the valuable end-product biodiesel according to existing fuel standards and avoiding expensive treatment of high waste volumes;
  4. Fully automatic process control during an 11-month non-stop production period. A study on proven biodiesel process technology suppliers in Europe was completed recently for the International Energy Agency-Bioenergy by ABI and is available free of charge on request.

Concerning the development of feedstock supply, one can envision a long-term switch from the present worldwide use of four major food oil crops (soy, palm, rapeseed, sunflower) - all of them still have significant expansion potential when considering e.g., Eastern Europe - to the so-called non-food oilseed crops.

Specifically one can mention the oilseed bush Jatropha curcas, which grows in semiarid zones on marginal soils (India, Madagascar, Brazil, Egypt), the palm tree Acrocomia totai, which grows wild in Paraguay and is presently not used at all as an oil source, and the berry bush Cornus wilsoniana in China. Besides the harvest of oil for biodiesel production, those plants are creating additional jobs in areas where rather less educated farmers with very low incomes are going to find improved living conditions. The more those promising non-food oilseed plants are grown and used, the lower will be any potential competitive effect in the present hotly debated battle of "food-versus-fuel" which, in my opinion anyway, lacks solid and proven argumentation.

An even newer idea in the development of feedstock supply is the initiative growing oil-producing algae either in big inland ponds or marine sea containers. This, however, is in a very early R&D-stage for the time being, with the goals of producing sufficient volume with limited inputs, as well as oils with a suitable fatty acid composition.

bridges: What kind of prospects - and risks -  does biodiesel (production) pose for the developing world in your opinion?

Werner Koerbitz: With the huge potential in the transport fuel market for fossil diesel fueled vehicles, biodiesel can become a major source of income for currently less developed countries when growing non-food oilseed plants on previously unutilized land. It does not need a high-tech industry but rather the application of simple methods of agricultural cropping, which is going to create additional and lasting income.

jatropha fields in India
Jatropha fields in India

It needs, however, a sustainability approach - specifically in the first three years - and not dreamers who intend to become rich the fast way. It will take many years of patience and persistence to breed for and select the most appropriate non-food oilseed plant species, to propagate them in large numbers, to develop the most productive plant management of annual as well as perennial oilseed plants, to establish efficient oilseed crushing facilities and related logistic systems, to establish a biodiesel production facility, and finally to assure take-off agreements by reliable partners. This can also include export activities to regions with high fuel consumption such as the European Union and North America.

bridges: Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of whether biofuels can help at all  in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Crucial to this seems to be the feedstock and the circumstances under which a biofuel is produced.  What is the best way to ensure that only sustainable feedstock is used for the production of biofuel?

Werner Koerbitz: For the presently used oilseeds (e.g., rapeseed) grown in Europe, there is a clearly positive balance concerning greenhouse gas emissions, as any plant is absorbing CO2 in the usual photosynthetic process. This was the result of quite a number of life cycle analysis studies carried out by recognized and independent R&D-institutes. The highly effective climate gas laughing gas ( N2O ) is part of the natural root activity of any plant, but is emitted only in very small volumes.

An exception is the rainforest, which can show negative balances if destroyed and drained, but which is strongly controlled in most of the concerned states, with the best example to be seen in Brazil.

For the standard oilseed crops, the usual good agricultural practices with regular crop rotation is sufficient..

bridges: Food vs. fuel: Critics claim that the "agribusiness" with biofuels production has led to a competition with food production, causing food prices to run up. What is your opinion on this?

Werner Koerbitz: One can understand that an emotionally launched campaign saying that biofuels compete against food can create eye-catching headlines and increase newspapers' turnover and profit. However, it is a strong and one-sided simplification, as hunger in this world is not a function of limited land available but simply of bad management (e.g., Zimbabwe was once a successful wheat exporting country with plenty of good soil, but has become an importer of cereals) or discriminating terms of trade (protectionism for both European and US farmers).

Recent FAO figures show the following situation: Today 41.88 million km² of land are available for agriculture, although just 15.06 million km² are in use; and only 0.11 million km² are used for biofuels production today, which is no more than 1 percent of that area. (Source: FAO - April 2007)

It is interesting to observe that at the same time that crude oil prices have reached all-time new heights of more than $100/barrel - thus severely affecting the economies of countries with high energy intensity - there was however no outcry in public or in the newspapers about the burden of high fossil petrol [gasoline] prices, as everyone was busy complaining about food prices and liquid biofuels.

bridges: If you look at the policy side of biofuels, and compare it with the scientific and research aspects, where do you see better progress, and what recommendations do you have for both policy makers and scientists?

Werner Koerbitz: Presently biofuels policies around the world are rather disastrous, switching quickly with a kind of go-stop-go-stop attitude and not assuring the required continuity, which is needed to build a long-term, lasting, and sustainable biofuels industry in a country and worldwide.

Worst example: Presently low priced palm-oil-biodiesel from e.g., Malaysia is shipped into Houston, where 1 percent fossil diesel is blended to it, receiving significant US subsidies and tax rebates. It is then being shipped as "B 99" to Rotterdam, where it undercuts European biodiesel significantly, already leading to closures of a number of European biodiesel production plants. Another negative example can be seen in Germany, which had developed the largest biodiesel market with a separate fuel pump system. But the existing tax exemption has been reduced significantly overnight, which has led to bankruptcies of a number of biodiesel production plants.

canola fields
Canola fields in Austria

Research is suffering as well, and has slowed down although there are enough topics for further R&D, such as the definition of the "ideal oil" with an optimized fatty acid profile meeting the needs of the modern and demanding diesel engine and its fuel injection equipment. A recently completed R&D-project of the ABI and BLT showed that a short-chain fatty acid oil - like that produced by the coconut - is improving the fuel stability and reducing some emissions, while having nearly the same distillation curve as fossil diesel and assuring a smooth combustion process. With modern GM-breeding technology, such an oil can be expressed in any oilseed plant in the world, which can lead to improved acceptance of such innovative biodiesel by the diesel engine industry.

bridges: From the consumer perspective, what do you think would be the most motivating factor to switch to renewable fuels in general?

Werner Koerbitz: The top driving motive could be recognizing that biodiesel is a renewable fuel that can be grown year after year all over the world in nearly all climate zones, while realizing that we have passed the "Peak of Oil" in fossil oil production already. Any future fossil oil has to be explored and produced at ever-increasing cost under more difficult conditions (e.g., the Arctic region, deep sea drilling) leading to continuously increasing energy bills. Fossil oil producing countries may want to flex their muscles in order to gain political weight, such as the recent closure of fossil gas pipelines from Russia to Western Europe by the Russian president Vladimir Putin. With biodiesel produced all over the world in many regions, such risks become significantly less probable. Liquid biofuels will assure a high level of energy supply security for the road traffic.

bridges: How do you see the relation between biofuel-powered vehicles, and the so-called "plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles," or PHEVs? Are they an addition, or rather a competitor?

Werner Koerbitz: One can assume that we are going to need both types of non-fossil energy sources; plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles may be the solution for the rather short distance city traffic.

bridges: What are the biggest challenges biofuels will have to face in the future in your opinion?

Werner Koerbitz: Presently liquid biofuels face the very cold wind of a worldwide PR campaign discrediting liquid biofuels as greenhouse gas-increasing fuels, as being responsible for significant increases of food prices and therefore of hunger worldwide, as leading to destruction of rainforest, and completely neglecting any of the proven advantages - among these, the renewability of liquid biofuels year after year after year, even when the last oil well has been closed because fossil oil ran out after years at exorbitantly high prices. {/access}