First versus second generation

In the biofuel debate, it important to distinguish first and second generation technologies. First generation technologies produce biofuel from edible feedstock like starch (from maize), sugar (from sugar cane) or rape seed oil. Second generation technologies produce biofuel from wood or grass fibres, or from specially bred ‘second generation crops’ like Miscanthus. Acceptance of first and second generation biofuels is completely different.

First and second generations make less difference in chemicals and materials production. Chemicals and materials need much less feedstock for their production, when compared to energy. Moreover, calculations show that technology is not decisive in energy use or greenhouse gas emissions; it is whether producers use the whole crop. For example: in production of biomaterials from wheat, it would make a great difference if one would use the kernel only, or all parts of the crop, e.g. straw for process energy production. In the first instance, greenhouse gas emissions would be much higher.

A recent Wageningen UR and Utrecht University Copernicus Institute study shows for Western Europe that biomaterials production from sugar beet (first generation) emits less greenhouse gases than production from Miscanthus (second generation), simply because sugar beet productivity per hectare is so much greater. Even though present common opinion holds that a breakthrough of biomass needs second generation technologies and crops – in reality first generation technologies and crops might be with us for a long time, simply because of their efficiency.

Courtesy WTC, Dutch Scientific and Technological Committee for the biobased economy

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