What it will take for biofuels to be the fuels of the future

What it will take for biofuels to be the fuels of the future

Running cars on ethanol made from palm oil, corn or soy is already a wide-spread reality. But the biofuel industry is still far from providing a truly sustainable and clean alternative to fossil fuels — unless it switches its gears.

The quest for alternatives to fossil fuels is not new. In fact, it’s been going on for as long as cars have existed. Originally, Henry Ford planned to fuel is famous Ford T (produced and sold from 1908 to 1927) with ethanol; other early cars were running on peanut oil. And in the years 2000, after decades of near-total hegemony of fossil fuels, the tide started to change again. A renewed enthusiasm for biofuels led the United States to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, according to which the transportation industry had to adopt biofuels on a large scale, by using them as supplements to traditional fossil fuels. “The beauty of biofuels is that they suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow. When we burn them in our automobiles, we release carbon dioxide, but it is the same carbon that the plants absorbed while growing. Just on that basis, biofuels appear to be zero net emitters”, writes professor of thermal sciences John Abraham in The Guardian. And they have the added advantage of being a renewable resource, contrary to fossil fuels.

In Europe, biofuels have had their advocates since the middle of the 2000 decade too. For the past 15 years, the “Fuels of the Future” have had their own international conference, at the initiative of German actors of the bio-based energy sector. Since 2017, the conference includes “renewable mobility” into its main points of focus: “In incorporating this additional content, the conference organisers underline the fundamental importance of all renewable options for decarbonisation of transport. Referring to the ambitious objective of the Paris Climate Agreement, the conference organisers emphasise that decarbonisation of transport cannot be achieved by 2050 unless all these options are deployed.”

Not-so-green crops

In that spirit, the U.S. started to massively grow corn, soybeans and milo to produce ethanol, while Brazil and other tropical countries resort mainly to sugarcane. In Europe, biodiesel (a fuel usually made from palm oil) is widely available. Today, explains Smithsonian Magazine, nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’s corn production is converted to fuel. “But it turns out that the environmental problems associated with growing those crops on an industrial scale—a crop that requires highly fertile land as well as copious irrigation, tillage, and tractor fuel to produce—outweigh the environmental benefits of burning corn-based biofuel.” Because the production process often relies on coal or natural gas — at least in the U.S. –, “biofuels don’t replace as much oil as they use,” explains National Geographic. That’s not all. Some warn that the harvest of sugarcane or palm oil for biofuel could be devastating for the rainforests. And then there’s the question of food: crops (like corn) that could feed people are used to power cars; land that could be used to grow food is requisitioned for biofuel-production purposes. “Agriculture is being challenged by increasing food demand, and changes to regional climate. On top of this, most plans to combat climate change rely on the agricultural sector to increase carbon storage in soils, and to produce raw materials for the large-scale production of biofuels and power,” Dr. John Field, from Colorado State University, sums up in The Guardian.

The right crop, at the right place, in the right way

That doesn’t mean that biofuels are not the way of the future; it means that the biofuels we are producing now are not it. John Abraham recalls co-conducting a study in 2009, whose conclusions were that “if non-commercial crops were grown, you could actually end up with fuel that was significantly cleaner than petroleum. The trick was finding clean crops that don’t need a lot of fertilizer, water, and other inputs. (…) Our conclusion in 2009 was straightforward. Don’t use good cropland for biofuels. Rather, use marginal croplands, with minimal water and fertilizer, to create plants that can be converted to biofuels.” These marginal croplands can be switchgrass (which allows to produce fuel containing more than 5 times as much energy than it takes to grow and refine it) or hemp (which Ford wanted to use for the T Model, and produces nearly four times as much oil per acre as soybeans). According to Smithsonian Magazine, algae, an exotic plant called carrizo cane and a tropical shrub called jatropha are also leads worth exploring.

Of course, each of these solutions have their own specific drawbacks, and the path is not free of hurdles. Dr. John Field and a team of scientists found in a 2018 study published in Nature that marginal croplands give lower yields, which means there are “competing issues of productivity and greenhouse gas reduction,” writes John Abraham. But they also found that farmers make decisions based on the price of biofuels and the cost of greenhouse gases: “Simply put, if we put a reasonable price on carbon pollution, farmers will be able to grow switchgrass, poplars, and other species, reduce greenhouse gases, and make money. But, if there is no cost to carbon pollution, farmers will be motivated to spend more money on fertilizer and that, in the end, will lead to more emissions.” Putting a price on carbon may be the best way to make biofuels the stuff of the future.

The rise of the flying cars: is the future finally here

The rise of the flying cars: is the future finally here

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” For a while, this 2013 quote by Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, seemed to never get old — except now we have 280 characters. But five years later, it finally looks like we are on our way to have Twitter AND flying cars.

2017 was a busy year for flying cars. Two German start-ups, Lilium and Volocopter, carried out the maiden flights of their electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles: Lilium in Munich in April 2017, and Volocopter in Dubai City in September 2017. The former, in particular, looks like the closest thing we can imagine to the machines that crowd the sky of Metropolis or Blade Runner. Both companies assure they are developing the future of mobility, a future in which they imagine their flying cars as a taxi service as ubiquitous as Uber. Uber, as it happens, is also working on their own machine, the UberAIR, as part of the project Elevate: the first demonstrator flights are set to start in 2020, and the commercial operations in 2023 in three launch cities (Dallas and Los Angeles have been confirmed, and Uber is now searching for the third one).

Major constructors are also in the starting-blocks. In March 2017, Airbus and a subsidiary of Volkswagen-Audi demonstrated their Pop.Up concept in Geneva: an autonomous capsule that can be attached to a four-wheeled vehicle or dock on a sort of giant drone that carries it to its destination. Around the same time, Google founder Larry Page launched his own version of the flying car: Kittyhawk — which initially was the subject of mockeries. In a segment of his Late Show in April 2017, Stephen Colbert joked: “This is it, the thing we’ve been promised, the thing we’ve been dreaming about our entire lives. (…) It looks like a mini-trampoline had sex with a wiener mobile.” The title of the video was no less eloquent: “Flying Cars Are Finally Here And They Suuuuck”. Today, the company is developing Cora, an “everyday air taxi”, and Flyer, for a personal flying experience — or, as Colbert put its, the thing that “is going to revolutionise how rich people travel across a lake.”

Safety issues and the march of progress

The arguable reason why everyone wants in on the flying car game is that we are starting to run out of options to make city traffic bearable again. Major cities all face problems with congestion and air pollution. And the rise of ridesharing services has, among other things, highlighted the fact that a lot of people would rather ride a taxi than bike, walk or use public transportation. In short, one car replaces another. So if we are to keep living with taxis and chauffeur-driven cars, they might as well be electric, silent and able to fly above traffic.

Before they become commonplace, though, there are quite a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some, like engineer, architect and MIT teacher Carlo Ratti, don’t even believe in the technology. In Le Monde, he argues that these vehicles will still be too noisy for city-dwellers to bear their presence in massive numbers. He also writes: “the multitude of vehicles required to transport a large number of people above our heads would pose serious threats to our safety. (…) A battery failure or a rotor blade breaking could make a heavy vehicle fall on a highly-populated area.” There’s also the reglementary framework to consider: would only taxi services be allowed to fly in the city, or could anyone with a flying car? Who would regulate aerial traffic, and how? How will we ensure that the system stays out of reach of malevolent hackers or terrorists?

As relevant as these questions are, one thing the history of progress has taught us is that if something is physically possible, there will be people to develop it. So much money and so many interests are already on the line that it seems highly unlikely the flying cars will be abandoned before they even try to roam the city skies. We just have to ensure they really are what we have been promised all along: a sci-fi utopia that will make our cities more livable.

Easter traffic: soon cleaner…but no less annoying

Easter traffic: soon cleaner…but no less annoying


It’s nearly Easter, and that means…endless traffic jams. Well, not quite endless – there was one in Beijing in 2010 that lasted for 12 days, so you will hopefully get off easier than that – but it’s never much fun.

So while we are probably some way from consigning traffic jams to the scrap heap of history, we seem to be moving that way for fossil-fuel powered vehicles and dirty mobility options. We need alternatives, and that’s why we at the Solar Impulse Foundation have committed to select 1000 clean, efficient and profitable solutions to protect the environment.

Clean transport implications

And while our scope goes beyond mobility, the implications of clean transport are about much more than just how we get around. For example, In Europe transport accounts for more than a third of our total energy use, and while electric vehicles are central to decarbonizing the transport sector, it will also cause the demand for electricity to skyrocket so how that electricity is produced, and the efficiency with which it is used, are key factors. Indeed, the amount of electricity needed could actually hold back the uptake of these clean technologies.

The point espoused by Bertrand Piccard, the chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation and someone who knows a thing or two about clean – if unconventional – mobility – is that solutions exist that protect the environment and are economically viable and that rather being seen as an expensive cost, should be seen as opening up new industrial markets and creating jobs and profit.

What do some of these solutions look like?

Well, there’s a great variety; consider petrol vehicles, which are going to be with us for some time yet. Anti-smog have created a hydrogen fuel enhancement kit which injects hydrogen into the engine allowing for a more complete combustion of fuel in cars, thereby reducing engine emissions by up to 80% and increasing fuel efficiency by up to 20%.

Finding ways to improve efficiency are all over the place, and certainly includes the physical design of the vehicle. Airshaper are providing tools to help constructors figure out designs to reduce aerodynamic resistance, which accounts for more than half of the energy required to keep a heavy vehicle moving at 100 km/h, and reducing that resistance by 20% can cut overall fuel consumption by a tenth. Across the EU, lorries, buses and coaches are responsible for around a quarter of road transport carbon emissions. Or what about Solvay, who have found that by adding Silica to tires, they are able to reduce rolling resistance significantly, leading to a 7% improvement in fuel efficiency, and therefore reduced emissions for the same trip.

It’s not just for cars and trucks, though; the phrase “innovative and sustainable railway sleepers” may not be the stuff dreams are made of, but GreenRail have made just that; a sleeper that lasts longer, cost 40% less to maintain, and cuts down on noise pollution. Most remarkable though is that for every kilometer of train track, some 35 tons of recycled plastic and rubber are used in their manufacturing! They were selected as the Best Startup of 2017 at the second edition of Startup Italia Open Summit this past December.

And if we rethink urban mobility, let’s consider all those cities with rivers and lakes that can be used to reduce congestion, which is costly; Paris loses some 10Bn EUR in lost productivity each year because of it. That’s where Seabubbles comes in with their low-cost, energy-efficient electric water-taxi service. It’s quick, comfortable and runs off energy produced cleanly at its docking station. As you’ll see from the video below, it seems a lot more pleasant than sitting in traffic.

It’s clear that a great many solutions, in addition to the electric and hydrogen vehicles that will increasingly populate our roads, are part of this transition, and we are looking to help bring them to the fore. So as you sit, stuck surrounded by your fellow drivers pondering why you decided to take this drive in the first place, consider submitting your solution to be included for consideration as one of our 1000 Efficient Solutions.

Solar Impulse Foundation

Following the success of the first solar flight around the world, the Solar Impulse Foundation has launched the second phase of its action: selecting #1000solutions that can protect the environment in a profitable way, and bring them to decision makers to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental targets and energy policies.

 Through the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, Bertrand Piccard wants to federate the actors of the field in clean technologies and shed light on existing efficient solutions to fast-track their implementation. A new innovative and pioneering adventure has begun – together we can improve the quality of life on Earth.

How blockchain will revolutionise the way we use cars

How blockchain will revolutionise the way we use cars

Blockchain-based mobility services will challenge the monopoly of private platforms, by decentralising the system, putting the power back in the hands of the end users and protecting their personal data.

Blockchain is a technology that allows to store and share information without any central control organism. Its most famous application is the bitcoin, an open-source, peer-to-peer and digital decentralised cryptocurrency, created in 2009. Basically, the blockchain is a growing list of records (blocks) that are linked and secured using cryptography; it works as a database of all the exchanges that happened between its users since its creation. Now, this database is not centralised; it’s actually replicated multiple times and in real time all over the network. Which means that blockchains are secure by design: instead of one central server, a multitude of servers detain the information on the transactions, making it virtually impossible to hack.

A multi-field revolution

Blockchain is set to revolutionise quite a few sectors, from energy transactions to online voting, money transfers, banking, insurance, contracts, etc. But it also has great potential in the realm of mobility. To this day, the most famous innovation in that field is called La’Zooz : an Israeli start-up offering a decentralised carpooling service, entirely owned by its community. Contributing to the service (whether you are a driver, a passenger, or a developer for the app) earns you tokens that are stocked on a blockchain and can be used to order a ride. There are several advantages to building a Decentralised Autonomous Organization (DAO) like La’Zooz, compared to what classic carpooling, car-sharing or private hire platforms offer. First, the “fair share” system permitted by the use of tokens ensures that all the users and stakeholders of the service benefit equitably from it. Secondly, the absence of a central platform makes for cheaper rides: the users “work” in their best interest rather than enriching a private company. Thirdly, it protects the users’ data and increases trust all around, which is paramount to the collaborative economy.

From car-sharing to electric charging stations

La’Zooz is not the only initiative to harness these strengths. EY (Ernst & Young) recently announced the creation of Tesseract, a platform that enables companies and groups of individuals to share the use of a car, while payment and insurances are handled through the blockchain. Institute for Technological Research SystemX is working with French local authorities on a system to remunerate carpooling drivers with tokens they can use to rent a bike or ride the public transportation system — an interesting perspective for intermodality. Start-up Pack’n’Drive has developed the Chainly project to allow connected car drivers to easily and safely declare damages. In Germany, the Share and Charge network allows private individuals to install a charging station for electric cars in front of their home, which can be used by anyone at a rate they fix. The owner of the station is remunerated with tokens that can be spent at another charging station or converted to euros.

The future of autonomous cars

In the near future, blockchain-based mobility services will most likely develop around autonomous cars. The Toyota Research Institute has partnered with the MIT MediaLab and four companies to test the opportunities of blockchain for the automobile industry. One of the projects consists of sharing the data gathered by connected cars and through tests on autonomous cars, which will help build safe and reliable self-driving vehicles. Then, once these vehicles are available to the public — most likely through car-sharing or private hire platforms –, the blockchain technology could allow to form peer-to-peer sharing platforms. The cars would communicate among themselves and with the users, and smart contracts, insurance and payments would be handled through the blockchain.

These are still the early days of the blockchain revolution, but one thing is certain: in the field of mobility, the technology will divert value creation from monopolistic platforms and give more power to groups of users. That sounds about right.

The bicycle is the mobility of the future

The bicycle is the mobility of the future

“Cycling is a fluid, reliable, affordable, healthy, space-saving, energy-saving and non-polluting means of transportation. For distances ranging from 500 metres to 10 kilometres, it is often the method of locomotion that is the most efficient, beneficial to the local economy and enjoyable.” In Le Pouvoir de la pédale (Rue de l’Échiquier, 2014, new edition in 2018 — not translated), French cyclist and writer Olivier Razemon makes a strong case for the “cyclable transition”. He is not the only one to believe in the power of what the French call “la petite reine” (the small queen) to reinvent mobility. In June 2017, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) published a document entitled EU Cycling Strategy. Recommendations for Delivering Green Growth and an Effective Mobility in 2030, in which they write that “the benefits of cycling are widespread and concrete; they range from less congestion and better air quality to more jobs, and improved mobility.” They argue that cycling contributes to at least 11 of the 15 Sustainable Development Goals. “We believe the bicycle is a solution to many of the worlds’ woes,” says their website’s homepage.

Europe is leading the way

All over Europe, the bicycle is already an important part of the efforts led to achieve sustainable and affordable mobility. In the North of the continent, it is already well anchored in people’s habits: according to the Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index 2017, the most bike-friendly cities in the world are Copenhagen (where 62 % of residents ride a bike daily), Utrecht (where the biggest bicycle parking lot in the world — 12 500 spots — is under construction) and Amsterdam (where 40% of the inhabitants use the bicycle as primary means of transportation). In other European cities, “la petite reine” needs a bit more help to gain similar importance. Paris and the Île-de-France region, for instance, have adopted an ambitious cycling plan aimed at tripling the number of cycling trips by 2021. But it is worth noting that 18 out of the 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world are in Europe.

Building a European bicycle plan

So what’s ahead? Taking all of these city- or nation-led efforts, and joining them within a European bicycle plan. That is what the ECF advocates in its report, “the first systematic review of all EU policies related to cycling, directly or indirectly. It clearly demonstrates that targeted action at European level will bring about a better result compared to action solely at the national, regional and local level,” writes Manfred Neun, president of the ECF. The organisation has defined four objectives for 2030: grow cycle use by 50 % across the EU; halve rates for killed and seriously injured cyclists; invest 3 billion euros in cycling in the period 2021-2027, and 6 billion euros from 2028 to 2034; treat cycling as an equal partner in the mobility system.

We can imagine a European network of bicycle paths; a EU-wide, ambitious plan to support the adoption of electric bikes; a new system that revolutionises delivery-based businesses, where the bicycle allows to save time and money on the last-kilometre segment while trucks remain outside of the cities — of course, this system will have to protect the delivery riders much more fairly and efficiently than the current platforms already in use for food delivery. We can envision a mobility system where the bike is given at least as much importance as the car. As Olivier Razemon points out in his book, the main resistances to the bicycle are cultural: “When we present the bicycle as a means of transportation that is bound to develop, we face a backlash: the bike suddenly becomes ‘the poor man’s vehicle’, ‘an instrument that is difficult to handle’ or ‘an ecological talisman for the daydreaming bourgeois.’” While making the bicycle an instrument of the mobility of the future will require investments and ambition policy-making, the biggest obstacle still facing “la petite reine” maybe lies in our misconceptions.