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Nexant Forecasts Transition from First-Generation Biofuels

Current and emerging liquid biofuels technologies. Click to enlarge. Source: Nexant.

A newly published study by energy consultant Nexant, Inc. concludes that the current generation of commercialized biofuels—biodiesel and bioethanol produced from grains and sugars—are likely transitional technologies.

The study—Liquid Biofuels: Substituting for Petroleum—concludes that fatty acid methyl ester biodiesel will be capable of substituting for only a small fraction of global diesel demand. However, as a biodegradable, low-toxicity product, it will likely hold market share far into the future.

Bioethanol from grains and sugar, though an excellent high-octane gasoline blendstock, has many practical problems and is also likely to be transitional over the long term, according to the study.

Nexant projects that the next phase of development is likely to be ethanol made by fermentation of sugars obtained through biomass hydrolysis. Nexant also concludes that, perhaps sooner than some may believe, integrated thermochemical platforms will take the lead in producing both gasoline and diesel range biofuels (biomass-to-liquids [BTL], similar to coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids), most likely in conjunction with electric power and chemicals. This alternative should be—and probably will be—pursued contemporaneously with developing biomass-based ethanol, according to Nexant.

Regardless of which substrate is used to produce it, ethanol will eventually need to be dehydrated to hydrocarbon gasoline fractions that are more compatible with the existing fuel distribution and vehicle infrastructure.

In adopting ethanol dehydration, higher alcohols, and biofuels from syngas, society will make tradeoffs between two options: (1) the current renewable, sustainable biofuels that are biodegradable and have low toxicity, but have limited supply potential, and (2) other biofuels that are equally renewable and have small carbon footprints but are less biodegradable or more noxious—yet are more attractive in other ways.

While crop biotechnology may provide a more productive, varied, and stable feedstock platform for a biofuels industry, the potential for early conflict with food is probably underestimated, according to Nexant.

The role of byproducts such as DDGS, and possibly biodiesel glycerine, in balancing animal nutrition supplies is conversely underrated or even missed by many analysts. Nonetheless, the market’s mere perception of competition of biofuels for sugar and grains with the food, feed, and fibers sectors seems to be enough to cause dislocations. This is already evident in the markedly higher late 2006 prices for US corn, Brazilian sugarcane, and European rapeseed—each the primary biofuel feedstock in its venue.

The study outlines a number of attractive “paths of least resistance” for developing the global biofuels industry based on leveraging current or co-developing technologies, such as coal gasification and gas-to-liquids catalysis. For the interim strategy of fermenting sugars from biomass, a number of preparation options are available, and thermal utilization of fermentation process residues needs to be carefully considered.

For the thermochemical platform of the future, more work must be done to develop in-field pyrolysis of biomass to help overcome logistics challenges, as well as biomass gasification and system optimization.

The study profiles a broad range of agricultural and biotechnology platforms and issues, and its geographic coverage includes the countries playing significant roles in biofuel feeds, production, and/or technology development over the next decade, including:

  • The Americas—primarily, the US, Brazil, and Canada, and also other countries in the hemisphere with activities in liquid biofuels.

  • Europe—Western, Central, and Eastern, and Russia.

  • Asia—primarily, China, Japan, India, Thailand, and Malaysia, and also other countries in Asia with activities in liquid biofuels.

  • Africa (primarily South Africa) and Australia.


  • Prospectus for Liquid Biofuels: Substituting for Petroleum


Mark A

Glad to see that somewhere someone has studied the competition of biofuel versus food. Feed our stomachs or our vehicles?

As I have said before, we may be able to drive anywhere we want, just not have anything to eat once we get there! This report leans in that direction.


Mark A,
The debate of food vs vehicle fuel is often too simple. What we should be asking is how energy intensive our:
a) food is
b) vehicles are
Most of what we grow - in corn, wheat, soy, and other gains - goes towards animal feed, for milk and meat. If we cut back on beef and other energy intensive foods, we can feed ourselves, and provde the energy to run our economy. Additionally, more productive native energy crops can be grown, to further enhance he equation.


A 10% reduction in meat and dairy consumption along with cellulose ethanol production of 30 million acres of prarie grass would be a good start.


So from the picture it looks like this consulting company is
pushing NExBTL biodiesel. What is their relationship with NesteOil.

Rafael Seidl

Anon -

the graphic does explicitly mention Nestle Oil's process, but only in the context of a much wider overview of available and proposed biofuel technologies. In particular, it demonstrates that NExBTL is a relatively straightforward process with limited available feedstock and therefore not scalable to meet global demand.

Wrt the perennial food vs. fuel debate: if anything, this is going to impact developing countries hardest because they will have to limit their population growth to take advantage of a lucrative export opportunity. Considering that population growth is the root cause of persistent poverty in much of the developed world, the biofuels revolution could be beneficial in more ways than one. Where poverty is chronic, epidemics (e.g. HIV/AIDS, malaria, influenza once again) and warfare tend to follow. A key driver would be the education of and microcredit for enterprising women.

On a separate note: 75% of the world's surface area is open ocean, which receives just as much sunlight as the landmass does. The proportion is even higher in the tropics. In the long run, we will need technolgies that harvest solar energy out at sea, e.g. via controlled algal blooms.


"biofuels from syngas"...seems to be refering to gasification, which some think is an old method going nowhere. When in fact, it is a proven technology that holds great promise.


Raphael, as usual makes very good points. Solar energy, responsible for ocean thermals, currents and wave action - can also be harvested. We are now seeing innovative ideas about how to do this and they should be strongly supported.

This report appears to avoid any mention of land-based algal oil production which, combined with ocean-based algal blooms should become highly sustainable energy resources.


In essence, all fossil energy is solar energy stored over time. I say we save the stuff we were given for later and use renewables now.


There is lots of evidence that biomass will be gasified to biofuels. Even wet biomass from the output of cellulose processes has been gasified to fuels. It is more efficient, flexible and proven.

Cheryl Ho

DME developments in China today!!
DME is an LPG-like synthetic fuel can be produced through gasification of Biomass. The synthetic gas is then catalyzed to produce DME. A gas under normal pressure and temperature, DME can be compressed into a liquid and used as an alternative to diesel. Its low emissions make it relatively environmentally friendly. In fact, Shandong University completed Pilot plant in Jinan and will be sharing their experience at upcoming North Asia DME / Methanol conference in Beijing, 27-28 June 2007, St Regis Hotel. The conference covers key areas which include:

DME productivity can be much higher especially if
country energy policies makes an effort comparable to
that invested in increasing supply.
National Development Reform Commission NDRC
Ministry of Energy for Mongolia

Production of DME/ Methanol through biomass
gasification could potentially be commercialized
Shandong University completed Pilot plant in Jinan and
will be sharing their experience.

Advances in conversion technologies are readily
available and offer exciting potential of DME as a
chemical feedstock
By: Kogas, Lurgi and Haldor Topsoe

Available project finance supports the investments
that DME/ Methanol can play a large energy supply role
By: International Finance Corporation

For more information:

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