From being considered unwanted, environmentally harmful and with high disposal expenses, used cooking oil and food waste are now being collected and converted into low carbon emissions biofuels for integrated transportation on land, water and air.

What are biofuels?

Biofuels are biomass-derived fuels from crop plants or waste, such as cooking oil or food waste, and contrary to common knowledge, they have been an option for more low emissions transportation since the 1970’s, when they were used for road transportation in cars, vans and trucks. Today, biofuels make up to around 4% of the total usage of fuel globally, with blends of biofuel and fossil diesel or petrol are widely available at scale at fuel stations in multiplies countries. Currently, waste and residue, including cooking oil and food wastes, are the most used feedstocks processed into low carbon fuels for ships and airplanes.

Within the last years, the biofuel industry has undergone a significant evolution. Instead of relying solely on primary crops, biofuel’s feedstocks expanded to wastes, residues and by-products, called “advanced biofuels”. Furthermore, biofuels use also grew within the hard-to-abate transport sectors: seagoing shipping and aviation, in which electrification is not feasible with currently available technology.

The supply and demand of biofuel

The IEA estimated global biofuel demand to be around 160,000 million litres, with the road sector representing up to 98% of the total demand, followed by the maritime sector - that alongside the aviation one- is in process of significant expansion. Due to the early stages of development of maritime biofuels the availability of data is more limited but according to official data provided by Dutch and Singaporean Port Authorities, bio marine fuels blended into heavy fuel oils totalled around 600 million liters around 0.5% of the total demand.

Only a few years back, it would have been too expensive to fuel a ship with the crop-based biofuels sold to the road sector, due to the high green premiums (the difference from the biofuels and fossil fuel prices). In 2022, at least 150 world voyages were done with container ships fuelled with mixtures of advanced biofuels, from used cooking oils, food wastes to alternative and niche streams.

Ana Ferraz, Renewable Fuels Analyst at Maersk, talks about the growing use of biofuels within hard-to-abate sectors, claiming “whilst road transportation has more than 50 years of experience in biofuels, the maritime sector has only recently started to transition from fossil to biofuels. Consumption in 2022 has exceeded most market estimates”.

There is no unique fuel solution for the long-term industry decarbonization, but waste and residues biodiesel are the current enabler with availability to meet the initial stage of the decarbonization roadmap.

High lifecycle GHG savings biofuels with proof of sustainability

The late entrants into biofuel market, such as maritime sector, are benefiting from the developments of advanced feedstocks supply chain and predominantly relying on high lifecycle GHG savings biofuels, with minimal savings of 65% versus the fossil fuel alternative on a lifecycle basis. There are feedstocks and production processes that could achieve biofuels savings close to 100%, targeting the GHG emissions neutrality of future fuels. Those biofuels are in high demand and green premiums prices. When collecting waste’s feedstock and when producing biofuels, it is truly important to prioritise their traceability and the enforcement of appropriate methodologies to determine the carbon emissions. The chain of custody must be controlled and verified at each stage of the supply process. This allows end users to have confidence that the resulting biofuel will meet the sustainability standards that are essential for the continued growth and adoption of renewable energy sources.

Moreover, EU Commission-accredited schemes, such as the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC), established robust frameworks that secure sustainability along the supply chain by the issuance of Proof of Sustainability (POS) and independent certification bodies audits of emission savings claims and measurements.

The first commercial blends on scale of certified biofuels into a ship were done in Netherlands, at the largest European port of Rotterdam, but biofuel usage as maritime fuel is now expanding globally. The use of biofuels in ships are being reported in Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Asian and American’s ports.

The supply of certified biofuels with high GHG savings will be crucial for the expansion of biofuels in maritime transport sectors. Ana Ferraz also elaborates on the global expansion of biofuel bunkering, confirming “I believe the trend is irreversible. We will see more and more ships and airplanes demanding biofuels in the next years. Currently, the main hubs of biofuel bunkering are Rotterdam and Singapore, which are also trading centres of waste feedstocks and biofuels.”

Ocean view from a vessel



Why biofuels are necessary when moving towards net-zero?

Biofuels that do not require engine modifications, or blending with their petroleum counterparts, are called drop-in biofuels. Drop-in biofuels are easy to use in the current supply chain as a replacement of conventional fossil fuel as they require no physical changes to the vessels, aircrafts or vehicles before obtaining a significant carbon emissions reduction. In addition, they also use existing infrastructure, such as tanks, barges, and pipelines. This makes biofuel a great option for anyone who would like to significantly – and immediately - reduce the emissions footprint in their supply chain.

The world has a long way to go before reaching net-zero, and a lot of innovations and changes must be made before we can close in on the goal. Biofuel is one of the tools available to lower emissions immediately, while new technologies and innovations are being developed to support a greener future.

The future of biofuel is net zero

Waste and residues biodiesels are enablers, but they are not sufficient. New technologies are being developed and commercialized to enable more scalable and competitive methods of producing low emissions fuels such as green methanol (bio-methanol and e-methanol), green ammonia and lignin fuels (future biofuel based on lignocellulosic biomass). Some future biofuels are very close to being zero-emission fuels and can be produced at a scale from renewable electricity alone.

Ana Ferraz concludes “the challenges of a broader use of biofuels relies on both in the availability of high GHG savings feedstocks and renewable electricity, which, if overcome, will significantly reduce the green premiums prices, and attract even more demand. Not an easy task when the entire world is demanding renewable energy! Currently biofuels are still a premium product and as an industry we should work together to make it on par with fossil fuels. Then we could really see the impact biofuel use could have on the world’s emissions.”