A greener future with biofuels
Liquid biofuels are now becoming prominent in the heating sector as a more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Yan Evans examines how liquid biofuels could play a large part in helping the building industry find more sustainable and efficient energy solutions.
With climate change an ever increasing concern and Government regulations becoming more demanding as we approach the EU targets for energy efficiency, the heating sector must continue to look for ways to reduce emissions and develop technology that can be powered by alternative, low-carbon energy sources.
Proof of these efforts is being called for, as public buildings are now required to show Display Energy Certificates (DECs) to reveal the actual energy consumption recorded in the building’s meters. These are accompanied by an advisory report containing cost-effective recommendations for improving the energy performance of the building. Consequently, the list of possible energy-saving solutions continues to grow.
With so much scrutiny on how energy usage is being minimised, the focus has been on dramatically improving the efficiency of boilers and water heaters through technologically advanced design and the integration of low- and zero-carbon technologies such as solar thermal water heating and ground-source heat pumps.
Although this research continues unabated and the manufacture of LZC products has drastically increased, a number of solutions are being investigated to provide answers for those buildings with more specific requirements. There are many buildings, for example, with cast-iron sectional boilers that were initially chosen for their long life, but enhancing their efficiency has proved challenging. This is due to the fact that when standard efficiency boilers are coupled to LZC technologies most of the carbon-reduction benefits are lost. An answer is needed that could extend the lives and also reduce the carbon emissions of these boilers. Liquid Biofuels could be an answer.
Liquid biofuels are commonly understood to mean ethanol, diesel or other liquid fuels made from crops such as wheat, corn and used vegetable oils. The raw materials of these crops are turned into usable forms of ethanol after going through what is known as the transesterification process. In the UK, liquid biofuels for heating applications are produced mainly from used vegetable oil or rapeseed. Biofuels offer a number of perceived benefits, not least that it is a sustainable source of fuel with considerable CO2 savings, particularly where condensing technology is not an option.
Although discussions surrounding the topic of liquid biofuels have become more heated in recent years, the idea itself is not wholly new. Indeed, when Rudolf Diesel famously demonstrated his first engine, it ran on peanut oil.
Until recently the Government has focused mainly on the use of biofuels in the transportation sector, with conversion kits already on the market to enable car engines to run on biodiesel. Now, however, the issue of using biofuels in the heating sector is quickly becoming more prominent, as research has shown it could have a more positive effect in reducing carbon emissions when used as an additive or replacement fuel in oil-fired pressure-jet boilers. In the same way that conversion kits are already on the market to enable car engines to run on biofuels, so companies like Riello have made their burners compatible with biofuel, after seeing an increase in the demand for this equipment. This extends the useful life of otherwise less-energy-efficient appliances that, because of their size and solid construction, would be more cost effectively upgraded than replaced and are consequently able to fulfil Government legislation.
As research continues, it has become clear that the properties of biofuels made from rapeseed oil, for instance, differ from those made from sugar cane, Jatropha, or any other first-generation fuel, as well as the methods used to refine them. It is also clear that second- and third-generation biofuels are predicted to exceed the carbon reductions still further as more time is spent on their research and development, although it will probably be five to 10 years before these are commercially viable.
It is therefore important to set in place the technology, regulations and Government policies to prepare for the results of this research, as well as developing and improving current biofuels to ensure a truly low-carbon and sustainable source of fuel.
Manufacturers in the heating sector that are taking steps to integrate biofuels into their LZC technology programme will be preparing for the future as much as they are adapting to the present.
Yan Evans is technical director for Andrews Water Heaters and Potterton Commercial