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Future fuels

Simon Lawford, Technical Manager at Crown Oil explains how paraffinic fuels are leading the way in terms of providing an immediate and reliable solution to tackling air pollution

Fuel is a global requirement for economic growth and is the cornerstone of developing communities and facilitating the construction of the built environment.

But as the world’s population continues to rise and we continue to use more energy, we face a difficult challenge: to reduce emissions whilst enabling society to grow.

The building sector is responsible for over 70 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and has seen around a one per cent increase in building-related CO2 emissions every year for the last decade. Therefore, the transition towards a low-carbon built environment must consider both new and existing buildings.

While the government’s well publicised 2050 net-zero emissions target has laid out the UK’s green ambitions, there has been little insight into the minutiae needed to implement energy-efficient and low-carbon solutions for infrastructure systems and society. Workable long-term solutions for the industry and consumers have yet to materialise, which means air quality and climate change are not effectively tackled.

Current policies include reducing emissions from both new and existing buildings, increasing the use of zero or low carbon fuels and reducing vehicle emissions to zero, with a proposed ban of fossil-fuelled vehicle sales by 2035.

Although the decarbonisation of electricity is developing and electric vehicles (EVs) offer a reduction in emissions, there are some issues that complicate matters.

Firstly, the government’s aim is to tackle emissions at the point of use; however, the entire lifespan of a vehicle produces greenhouse gases, from the production to the eventual disposal.

Secondly, the infrastructure needed to build charging points and lay cables to power EVs will undoubtedly be fuelled by fossil fuels.

And finally, there are an estimated 308.3 million passenger vehicles in use across Europe, with an average lifespan of 12 years, and 99 per cent of these are diesel/petrol.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, there simply isn’t enough time to wait for an increase in EVs to make a significant reduction in emissions. The adoption of electric vehicles is not the sole answer; and renewable, paraffinic fuels offer a much easier and immediate solution.

The built environment accounts for around 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption and as much as half of that is used in buildings and infrastructure that is separate to its functional operation. As deadlines approach, the industry is under increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impact and cut fuel costs.

The need for clean, affordable and secure energy, coupled with the specialist knowledge needed to deliver innovation are a national precedence. These are highlighted as requirements in The Business Industrial Strategy and Clean Air Strategy.

Historically, a drop-in fuel that matched the performance attributes of fossil fuels with green credentials did not exist. However, innovations in modern chemistry have led to the creation of low-emission alternatives derived from renewable and sustainable sources which contain no oxygen or impurities.

Renewable, paraffinic fuels offer a more accessible and immediate solution for the built environment to significantly reduce its carbon footprint. They have been designed to combat the operational and performance inadequacies of conventional fuels and earlier generation biofuels.

HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) is part of the paraffinic family of fuels, characterised by having low aromatic and naphthenic hydrocarbon content and zero sulphur, which makes them extremely pure fuels.

Through hydrotreatment and isomerisation, the feedstocks are saturated with hydrogen at high temperatures and pressures which removes any esters and oxygen and enables it to resist ‘diesel bug’ attack. The crops used bypass damage to the environment, natural ecosystem and the drive for global deforestation, and can be regrown when stock is needed.

The proven benefits of using HVO are aplenty, including year-round usability, up to a 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and direct drop-in functionality.

While low-emission fuels can help reduce harmful emissions and social impact, the challenge is scaling the market and increasing awareness. Currently within the UK, the benefits of these drop-in solutions are restricted to a small, well-informed group. The general lack of awareness hinders their ability to tackle the legislative, reputational and environmental consequences of relying on fossil fuels.

HVO is already available at the pump in Finland, Sweden and several European countries.

In the UK, the main barrier to its uptake is cost; the tax rebate on diesel fuels makes them significantly more appealing to organisations, so investing in alternative fuels is a commercially challenging case to argue.

What’s more, alternative fuels have been previously hard to source in bulk quantities in the UK. However, fuel producers are already working to address these hindrances, by improving the supply chain and boosting HVO production to enable greener fuel adoption.

Despite evidential obstacles, paraffinic fuels provide vast scope for an immediate and tangible effect on tackling air pollution. With 11,900 large UK corporations legally required to report their emissions and a proposed ban of petrol and diesel cars by 2035, the government needs to further encourage innovation in alternative fuels.

While there is no silver bullet when it comes to air quality, the available short-term wins in the form of low-emission fuels are paving the way to a greener and cleaner future for many industries. With a strong infrastructure and a supply chain that is already developed, paraffinic fuels can play a crucial part in tackling air pollution on a significant scale.

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