The required consensus

It is not the lack of alternatives to fossil fuels that prevents manufacturers from committing to new biofuels - but the range of options available. Legislators and fuel producers need to help define the way ahead.

Business schools like to use the 1980s battle between video systems VHS and Betamax as a classic example of the risks involved in developing new technology when the market's preferences aren't fully known. Betamax was a good product (arguably better than VHS), but it lost the sales war because the market didn't follow. Part of the reason for this is that video stores saw a slight preference for VHS in their sales and therefore ordered marginally more VHS, thinking the trend would grow. This slight bias was magnified, leading to a 'Bullwhip Effect' where soon stores were brimming with VHS cassettes. Customers saw they had a wider choice of VHS films and natually bought VHS recorders. This vicious circle effectively ended Betamax's challenge.

Given the example above it would be a brave manufacturer who today nailed their colours to the mast and proclaimed 'Fuel X is going to be the replacement of Diesel in the future'. On August 29, 2007, a carbon dioxide-free transportation seminar was held at the National Marine museum in Stockholm, Sweden where the Volvo Group demonstrated seven trucks - each powered by a different biofuel solution. This not only demonstrated Volvo's advances in the areas of energy efficiency, hybrid technology and alternative fuels, it also highlighted the need for some form of pan-industry, pan-national consensus so that future investment can be focused in the right direction.

The candidates

Biodiesel, synthetic diesel, dimethylether (DME), methanol/ethanol, hydrogen or biogas - or a combination of these, all can be made to work technically by the transport industry. Of course each fuel has different characteristics, and an assessment includes parameters such as engine performance, increased weight, range between refueling, efficiency and ultimately payload. But if these factors were all there was to evaluate then the decision as to which fuel to promote in future would be clearer cut. But the question is much bigger than just fuel efficacy. Fuel supply infrastructure, impact on the climate, energy efficiency, land use efficiency, fuel cost and vehicle adaptation - these also need to be considered.

So answering the 'which biofuel is best? question requires political and economic input just as much as technological.

'Well to wheel' means that all the relevant stages of the fuel chain are considered. This includes the cultivation and harvesting of the raw material, its transport to the fuel manufacturing plant, production and distribution of the fuel to the filling stations, and then its use in vehicles. The quantity of fuel/energy used in harvesting, production etc is then subtracted from the quantity of fuel produced.

This calculation is easier said than done; some biofuels can use many different feedstocks and even complete crops, whereas others are limited to parts of individual crops. And where fuel feedstocks are derived from agricultural products there is the issue of the implications of competing for food production. Whatever the crop, sustainability over the long term is essential if our machinery is not to come to a grinding halt if there is a harvest.

All renewable fuels have the potential to reduce climate emissions from the transport industry by a significant amount. What is needed now is the production and distribution of renewable fuels on a major scale. Whether for use on or off highway, our equipment is not constrained by national boundaries, and international coordination between producers and legislators is required to develop uniform fuel standards and stable, long term regulations.

We are not trying to dampen enthusiasm for biofuels, quite the opposite. We feel there is great cause for optimism, with improvements coming in the form of energy efficiency, hybrid technology and renewable fuels. It is now becoming abundantly clear that in future it will be possible to completely replace fossil energy with clean renewable energy.

Manufacturers like Volvo are willing to shoulder their share of the responsibility for climate issues by developing equipment designed to use renewable fuels. However, making CO2-free transport a reality requires the active participation of politicians, government agencies and fuel producers. The politicians need to provide stable long term regulations while the fuel producers must provide answers about when production and distribution is to begin.

Whichever biofuel eventually reigns supreme, it will be a number of years before its availability meets market demand. Therefore the best and most logical solution in the short term is to blend the biofuels currently available with fossil fuels. This can be done now, does not call for extensive technical modifications or new infrastructure - and yet offers immediate environmental benefits.