sunliquid® Technology: Advanced Biofuels that Support Thailand’s Decarbonization

Towards Net Carbon Zero

The world needs to dramatically reduce carbon emissions to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees) compared to pre-industrial levels to avoid dangerous climate change, a goal agreed under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Faced with a growing energy crisis, record greenhouse gas concentrations and increasing extreme weather events, the recent 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Egyptian town of Sharm el Sheik, is building on the Paris Agreement, from urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, and adapting to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Like the rest of the globe, Thailand relies heavily on fossil fuels for its energy needs, and according to the country’s 2021-2030 Action Plan on Nationally Determined Contributions, its greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase to 555 Mt CO2 eq by 2030.

Indeed, last month the Energy Ministry Permanent Secretary, Kulit Sombatsiri, said that Thailand’s emissions from January to June 2022 were up 6.7% compared to the previous year due to an increase in energy consumption as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. 39.2 million tonnes came from transportation and other sectors such as household and agriculture with the specific challenge that the proportion of internal combustion engine vehicles in the country is still much higher than electric vehicles.

Despite the challenges, Thailand is showing promising signs of decreasing energy and CO2 emission intensity however it is far from on track to reach its increased greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of 40% agreed last year.

Electric Vehicles (EVs): One Tool in the Box to help reduce emissions

There have been efforts from government agencies and related parties to provide support on guidelines and new technologies that can further reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Thailand. One example is the Electric Vehicle Policy, with an aim to ensure that 30% of all vehicles produced by 2030 are electric. Under this 30@30 scheme, the goal is for Thailand to produce and sell 440,000 electric cars and pick-up trucks, 650,000 electric motorcycles, and 330,000 electric buses/trucks respectively.

Whilst this is a positive ambition, there is a key challenge – the energy source that drives these EVs still needs transmission systems from existing power producers and in Thailand almost 90% of the fuel used to produce electric power comes from fossil fuels[1]. This means that currently, an EV that is being powered by the national transmission system can only reduce around 10% of CO2 emissions.

 At a rough estimate, by 2030, EVs will account for approximately 3% of all vehicles[2]. With less than 10% renewable energy in the national transmission system the reduction of CO2 from the transport sector through EVs based on the 30@30 scheme will only be around 0.3%. If the proportion of renewable energy in the system rises to 20% by 2030 (which is nearly impossible), the reduction of CO2 from EVs in the transport sector would still be at 0.6%.

Bioethanol: An available and tangible immediate solution being neglected

While EVs are an important long-term solution to reducing emissions, there is an immediately available solution that can, in parallel, support the transition to a low carbon economy. Thailand’s Alternative Energy Development Plan 2018-2037[1], for example, promotes the production and use of ethanol up to 7.5 million liters per day by 2037. It’s estimated that this will help to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 14%.

Today, ethanol makes up around 13% of total gasoline usage, already helping to reduce CO2 emissions by 10% which is about 5% of the entire transport sector. Despite this, the alternative fuel seems to generate a lukewarm response from the Ministry of Energy, with the agency more focused on EV promotion.

sunliquid® Technology and the commercial competitive advantages

Clariant’s sunliquid® is a highly innovative and sustainable technology, utilizing various raw materials, that produces high-quality cellulosic sugars and ethanol from agricultural residues. With the sunliquid® process, a ton of rice straw with an average moisture of 13%, can be turned into as much as 253 liters of ethanol. There are also by-products from the process, e.g., vinasse, which can be used as a valuable energy source and organic fertilizer for agriculture. The optimized process conditions and tailor-made enzymes have been developed and tested in a pre-commercial plant in Germany for their performance in order to produce ethanol from several lignocellulosic biomasses.

The production cost of molasses ethanol and tapioca ethanol today is currently higher due to the high price of molasses and tapioca. The production cost of cellulosic ethanol from sunliquid® technology using biomass feedstocks like sugarcane tops and leaves, is significantly lower offering better competitive advantages. Moreover, the product can be exported to the European market where it is in high demand due to the advanced biofuels mandate from the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive II (REDII).

Most importantly, cellulosic ethanol from the sunliquid® process helps reduce CO2 emissions by more than 95%, compared to gasoline.

sunliquid® Technology and CO2 reduction  

According to the Alternative Energy Development Plan 2018-2037 (AEDP 2018), there is an enormous amount of underutilized biomass of up to 109 million tons annually, particularly from rice straw, sugarcane tops and leaves, tapioca roots and palm oil trunk.

The sunliquid® process can use this to produce up to 13.3 million tons of cellulosic ethanol (around 46 million liters per day), worth THB400 billion. The price paid for these raw materials of more than THB100 annually can also be distributed among the communities. This is in addition to the opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 32 million tons annually. Although it may only be possible to utilize only 10% – 20% of this biomass, if managed well, it can still generate income for farmers in local communities, adding value to the national economy, as well as enhancing the environment, and significantly lowering CO2 emissions.

Second generation bio-ethanol is addressing the key challenges of our time, such as emissions-free mobility and enabling downstream products made from renewable feedstock. Bioethanol has been well-established as a carbon-reducing blend component in the road transportation sector for decades, but Clariant is increasingly excited about the rapidly expanding uses for ethanol in making bio-based chemicals and especially sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Cellulosic ethanol and sugars also have the potential to serve as a building block for the future production of bio-based chemicals. Examples are renewable ethylene and polyethylene.

Electric Vehicles and ethanol both have a role in the energy and technology transformation

Electric vehicles are a clear choice for the future as we transition to a low carbon economy, yet at this point in time, at the beginning of our energy and technology transformations, EV promotion, ethanol use, and the acceleration of SAF should go hand in hand to ensure that Thailand can achieve its COP26 40% emission reduction goal by 2030.

Whilst there is still uncertainty and a lack of clarity on how fast the percentage of renewable energy in power generation can grow; how many EVs will be on the road by 2030; and, whether there will be sufficient raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel, for EV batteries in the near future, bioethanol will be an important and tangible solution for Thailand.

Overall planning and development should not only focus on the reduction of CO2 emissions but consider the utilization of raw materials within communities. Reducing pollution due to burning also lowers emissions and the use of this material elsewhere enhances earnings providing better livelihoods for farmers who make up the majority of the country. Last but not least, sunliquid® Technology can play a commercially competitive role in producing ethanol from different biomass as well as increasing the opportunity to develop sustainable aviation fuels and biological products in the future.

Dr. Seksan Phrommanich
Business Development Manager SEAP, Business Line Biofuels & Derivatives
Email: seksan.phrommanich@clariant.com

3195/11, 6th FL., Vibulthani Tower 1, Rama 4 Road, Klongtan, Klongtoey,
Bangkok, 10110, Thailand.

[1] Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP)

[2] The Department of Land Transport in 2021

[3] AEDP 2018