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The world has plenty of potential renewable energy sources, but each has its own technical challenges. Scientists are working to develop alternative energy sources that are sustainable, clean and convenient.
Fossil fuels are expected to remain the world’s main source of energy for decades to come but sustainable, clean and convenient energy sources will also be needed in the mix.
Today’s most widespread biofuel, ethanol, is commonly made from starchy or sugary plants.
Biofuels are produced from biomass, usually plants, and liquid biofuels can be used for transport. We are one of the world’s largest distributors of biofuels and we are developing better biofuels that could see CO2 reductions and a sustainable alternative fuel source.
The two main forms of biofuel today are ethanol and FAME (Fatty Acid Methyl Esters), which have largely relied on food crops such as wheat or sugar cane as their source. We are working to to find a source material that does not compete with food crops, to develop a conversion process that will produce low CO2, and to produce efficient fuels.
Our biofuels research includes finding alternative feedstocks. We are looking into finding tough new enzymes to break down the cellulose in plants such as straw. For sources such as wood chips or waste paper, the gasification process – heating them to a low temperature to create a charcoal-like substance then at high temperature – produces a synthesis gas that can then be converted to a sulphur-free liquid fuel.
Algae has potential as a sustainable source of vegetable oil, that could be used for the production of biofuel for diesel engines. It is early days but algae hold promise, as they grow rapidly and can be cultivated in ponds of seawater and minimise the use of fertile land and fresh water.
Hydrogen is seen by many as “the fuel of the future”, but it still has a long way to go. It is an energy carrier, in the same way as electricity, and so must be produced from another substance. Most commonly, hydrogen is produced using steam that reacts with methane and converts it into hydrogen and carbon. It can also be produced from water through electrolysis.
The hydrogen can then be stored and converted to energy via hydrogen fuel cells, now available for cars. In hydrogen fuel cell vehicles a chemical reaction inside the fuel cell – usually between hydrogen and oxygen – creates electricity for the motor and the only resulting exhaust pipe emission is water vapour.
We are learning as much as possible about hydrogen refuelling and how to meet future customer needs. We are involved in research and demonstration projects and have already opened a cluster of commercial hydrogen filling stations.