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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Sustainability potentials of bioeconomy - 3rd generation biofuels

Thematic area: Energy, resources, environment
Analytical approach: Monitoring
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: ongoing
Current project phase: Report completed. Approval by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment pending
Duration: 2016 till 2018

Background and central aspects of the topic

The safe, sufficient, affordable and environmentally sound supply of energy is a major challenge of our time. With regard to energy consumption, traffic plays an important role in this context. In order to ensure »greenhouse-gas neutrality« of Germany by the year 2050, the entire transport sector (shipping, aviation, road traffic) has to be converted to post-fossil energy sources. For this reason, alternative fuels are required having the realistic potential of reducing the dependence on fossil energy sources to a relevant degree, of causing low environmental impacts and of being technologically feasible (with regard to energy density, supply infrastructure, engine technology etc.). Basically, biofuels are characterized by properties that meet these objectives to a rather high degree. They are an integral part of the German Federal Government's »Policy Strategy Bioeconomy« as well as of its »Mobility and Fuels Strategy«.

In recent years, however, biofuels and their mandatory addition (biofuel quota) have been criticized for triggering changes of land use and associated conflicts as well as for provoking an increase of food prices. However, there is one group of biofuels which is assumed to prevent or at least to reduce the emergence of a competition with food production, environmental protection or sustainable forestry with regard to land use: algae-based biofuels often referred to as »3rd generation biofuels«. This designation is intended to differentiate these fuels from biofuels originating from agriculture-based cultivated biomass and waste biomass (so-called 1st generation) as well as from biofuels based on forest wood or fast-growing tree species (so-called 2nd generation).

Objectives and approach

TAB's monitoring project aims at giving a compact overview of options for reaching the goal of greenhouse-gas neutrality for traffic by the year 2050 and at dealing in detail with two major aspects: algae technology and long-distance road haulage.

Algae can be divided into micro-algae and macro-algae. Micro-algae are cultivated in contained systems (bioreactors). Macro-algae, however, can be cultivated in open waters such as lakes, ponds or basins. There are advantages and disadvantages for both cultivation methods with regard to the quantities produced, achievable product qualities, environmental effects, energy efficiency etc. In order to make a realistic assessment of the potentials offered by biofuels made from algae as well as of their possible contribution to the envisaged bioeconomy, it is necessary to systematically examine the current state of research and development.

The objective is to find out, which quantity of biofuel can be provided in an environmentally sound manner. Provided that corresponding potential quantities are identified, it should be analyzed whether instruments and strategies from research policy or economic policy are available or possibly would be required to make use of this potential and to make 3rd generation biofuels (algae technology) ready for the market in the foreseeable future.

Due to the fuel qualities required and to the medium-term demand currently being discussed, 3rd generation biofuels might play a decisive role in the future particularly for long-distance road haulage. The focus has been set to long-distance road haulage, as it is easier to provide alternative fuels both for air traffic (e. g. »power to liquid«) and for seagoing vessels (e. g. liquefied gaseous fuels) than it is the case for long-distance road haulage. Against this background, another goal is to analyze the question on how long-distance road haulage will develop in the future and which other options are available for the transportation of goods.

For this issue, the existing knowledge from different fields (natural science, technology, economics, law etc.) shall be gathered and dealt with systematically and gaps of knowledge shall be identified in order to develop – on this basis – potential strategies for action for politics, administration and science.