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Green China: Increased Use of Biofuels to Reduce CO2 Emissions

Monday, August 22nd, 2011
fuel of life

Just like other countries in the world today, China is faced with issues related to the environment and climate change as well as growing concerns on energy security more than ever before. Energy production is dominated by the use of large quantities of coal and fossil fuels which are polluting, non-renewable, and facing imminent depletion. Oil prices continue to surge in the global market, thereby putting more pressure on the Chinese government to support the country's growing economy, the increasing number of private car ownerships, and the mounting impacts of environmental pollution.

To address these issues, China has embarked on a new Five Year Plan for 2011 to 2015 with a major thrust in finding renewable sources of energy to support the economy and its booming industries. The use of biofuels will play a significant part towards this end and a domestic biofuel industry will provide a viable option for the government in its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

In the recent past, the development of biofuels, which include biodiesel and ethanol fuel, was largely supported by incentives from the government. However, the industry is now faced with conflicts between food security and energy production, prompting the Chinese government to stop the production of ethanol from grain crops. China has no option but to pursue development in second-generation biofuels which are produced from agricultural waste instead of edible oils, sugar, starch, and other foodstuffs. While the United States and Brazil lead ethanol production in terms of volume, China may be on its way as the leader of a second biofuel generation, and it has placed this on its political agenda.

This focus will be a major step in improving the nation's energy efficiency and reducing the country's reliance on coal, petroleum, and other fossil fuels. Technologies in this area are available now and are providing unique opportunities for China for clean energy production. Biofuel production will also be a means of developing a new socialist countryside by providing new sources of income and other employment opportunities for people in rural areas. Biofuel production will help ensure continued economic growth by reducing dependence on expensive fossil fuels while at the same time lowering the nation's overall carbon footprint.

Issues and Challenges for Biofuel Use in China

The Chinese government is keen on reducing the country's dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuels, and has relied on biofuel production as a viable alternative. However, China has seen how an increased demand for corn as feedstock for ethanol production resulted in crowding out land in the United States and Brazil - land that was primarily intended for food production.

What this simply means is that converting land from growing conventional food crops and switching to biofuel crops would affect the country's food production. This is not a viable scenario for China, with its very large population and only 10 percent of its land area being arable. Food security has always been a big issue for China, and it looms large in the country's future struggle to support its very large population and rapidly-growing economy. In the past, China has been known to implement drastic measures to mitigate concerns on population and food security - and the government would not risk going through that entire struggle once more.

This concern for food security prompted the government to put restrictions on the use of grain crops for ethanol production. However, there is still an urgent need to produce alternative fuels, prompting the government to push and support the development of alternatives and non-grain crops for feedstock. The country desires to have food security for its growing population, and finding alternatives for biofuel feedstock would be a welcome option that the government and emerging industry would embrace.

Trends in Biofuel Use in China

In 2005, China emerged as the third largest producer of biofuels next to the United States and Brazil, with the government's top planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, setting production targets to meet 15 percent of the country's transportation energy needs by the year 2020. The country now has four facilities with a total capacity of 2.2 million metric tons, or approximately 47,000 barrels, per day.

These facilities can produce up to 1.02 million metric tons of ethanol from grain crops plus another 800,000 metric tons from corn. But faced with growing concerns on food security and price inflation, China moved away from using corn and grains as feedstock for ethanol production and has switched to non-grain crops for production. The use of second-generation biofuel technologies will further address this issue and help the country reach its goal of using non-fossil fuel energy sources to supply at least 11 percent of China's total consumption by the year 2015.

The use of second-generation biofuel technologies will not only have the potential of reducing CO2 emissions by as much as 90 percent from what the country is producing right now, but it will also have a lesser impact on food production, supplies, and prices. Agricultural waste also create a significant impact on the environment, particularly on current disposal methods and the resulting pollution. Using it as feedstock for ethanol production will help mitigate this environmental concern.

A good example is the agricultural province of Anhui where farmers previously burned surplus hay, with the resultant ash used as fertilizer to provide nutrients to the soil. The problem, however, is that burning straw would produce severe air pollution aside from causing interference with local flights. Unilever, however, made good use of this agricultural waste by converting it to fuel for manufacturing laundry detergent powder in its Hefei factory in Anhui. The factory has strict controls for protecting and maintaining air quality, and the resultant by-products are also used to produce bricks.

Last year, the China Petrochemical Corporation partnered with the China National Cereals, Oils, and Foodstuff Corporation and Novozymes, a company producing enzymes used for the production of bio-industrial products, to build a 10,000 ton-capacity biofuel production plant that will make use of the leaves and stalks of corn to produce fuel. This pilot plant will be upgraded to 20 times its current size starting the end of 2011 until 2013, where the plant will have a commercial capacity of up to 100,000 metric tons of biofuel production.

Aside from using agricultural wastes for biofuel feedstock, China has also started agricultural development in growing non-food crops in less agriculturally-productive lands. Such crops include sweet sorghum and jatropha curcas, which can be grown and extracted for oil that can be used as feedstock for biofuels. The seeds from the jatropha plant produce the highly poisonous toxalbumin curcin, but it also produces about 27 to 40 percent oil which can be processed into high-quality biodiesel. What makes jatropha ideal for planting in less-productive lands is that the plant is resistant to high degrees of aridity and can be grown even in deserts.

Sinopec, the country's largest state oil company, invested US$5 billion in jatropha curcas production for plantations in China as well as in other locations like Indonesia. Last year, the Guizhou Province applied to the National Development and Reform Commission its plans of building a 50,000-ton biofuel industrialization demonstration project using oil from the jatropha curcas as feedstock. Working with the provincial government is the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, which invested US$19 million for a 30 percent stage in the project. A 300-ton trial production line has already been established and plans of upgrading the plant to 1 million ton per year capacity is on its way.

China's Green Future with Biofuels

According to the International Energy Agency, the consumption of biofuels on a global scale will increase from its current level of 55 million tons to over 750 million tons by the year 2050, and will significantly replace the same volume of crude oil. In terms of transportation fuel, the market will use biofuels more and more, rising from its current 2 percent level to 26 percent by the year 2050. Second-generation biofuels will account for about 90 percent of total biofuel production by that time.

Biofuels and energy will not be the only products that will be produced using second-generation biofuel technologies. In the field of biochemicals, agricultural waste can also be harnessed to produce plastics and other chemicals such as plant-based glycol which can be used for other industrial applications. One example is an upcoming project by Novozymes in Jilin Province that will produce not only biofuels but biochemicals as well.

As this industry continues to mature and better technologies are developed, China and several other economies that will adapt these technologies can stand to benefit in terms of energy production and climate change mitigation. China is expected to consume 12.7 billion liters of biofuels by the year 2020, with automotive ethanol accounting for 100 percent of transportation energy requirements, according to China's National Development and Reform Commission. The industry also has the potential of generating up to US$230 billion globally by the year 2020, which will provide better economic stability for China and other countries entering the market.

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