Development of Biomass-to-Liquids fuel production from thermochemical processes

Why is this gap important?

Biomass-to-Liquids (BtL) synthetic fuels produced from thermochemical processes, such as gasification and pyrolysis, offer the potential to convert low value biomass and waste feedstocks (including municipal solid waste) to low carbon transport fuels. The high availability of these feedstocks means that fully commercialised thermochemical technologies could open the door to significant volumes of advanced biofuels for the transport sector, providing diesel substitutes in sectors that are hard to electrify.

Technology solutions

There are various BtL technology pathways to produce transport biofuels. These are generally at a technology readiness level between 5-7 e.g. development and demonstration. However, one BtL technology has reached TRL 8 first-of-a-kind commercial scale.

BtL fuel production remains low. Some plants have failed to successfully operate once built and multiple announced projects have not been developed. Several challenges slow technology development, such as:

  • Tar formation causing operational problems with downstream equipment.
  • Slagging and fouling with certain feedstocks limiting plant availability.
  • Difficulties with handling, storage and transportation of certain biomass and waste feedstocks. 

There is also the need to lower BtL fuel production costs.

Gasification with syngas fermentation to produce methanol/ethanol Readiness level:

Gasification with fischer–tropsch (FT) process to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels Readiness level:

Pyrolysis with upgrading of bio-oil to liquid hydrocarbon fuels Readiness level:

Colored bars represent the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of each technology. Learn more about TRLs

What are the leading initiatives?

One plant is producing methanol and ethanol from municipal solid waste in Canada, with replication projects in development. In the United States two commercial scale projects based on gasification and FT to produce aviation biofuels are in the later stages of development. Sweden and Finland are also at the forefront of project development in the area of BtL fuels.

Countries with advanced biofuel policy frameworks e.g. several European Union member states and the United States are likely to lead future BtL development. These may open the door for future technology leapfrogging in other countries with significant feedstock availability should costs reduce. 

Recommended actions

Industrial producers

 Next 10 years:

  • Demonstrate long term operation of demonstration and first-commercial BtL facilities. This will facilitate commercialisation and an improved indication of BtL fuel production costs.
  • Optimised methods to convert or remove tars including identification of suitable scrubbing liquids and cracking measures.
Key countries/regions: Regions with active BtL project development e.g. Europe, North America.
  • Demonstrate the co-processing of biomass feedstocks and the upgrading of fuel precursors in refineries.

Academia

Next 10 years:

  • Research on the optimisation of BtL processes for different biomass and waste feedstocks.
Key countries/regions: Focusing on regions with significant feedstock availability.
  • Continued R&D on syngas/pyrolysis oil cleaning and upgrading to transport fuels.

Standardisation bodies, with vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)

Next 5 years:

  • Establish recognised standards for BtL fuel use and production.
Key countries/regions: Focused on key markets e.g. countries and regions with supportive policies for advanced biofuels.