29 August 2017

Double inaugural lecture of Martin Junginger and Gert Jan Kramer

The future of clean fuel: organic, synthetic or clean fossil?

Left: Prof Martin Junginger. Right: Prof Gert Jan Kramer.

If we are to minimise further climate change, we will need to switch from fossil to clean fuels. Yet, as both Prof. Martin Junginger and Prof. Gert Jan Kramer argue in their inaugural addresses, solar and wind energy alone are not sufficient. Where Junginger makes the case for sustainable biomass and a bio-based economy, Kramer contemplates a future of clean energy and clean fuels. Both Professors will hold their inaugural lectures on 8 September, from 16:15 in the University Hall at Utrecht University.

Solar and wind energy are rapidly gaining ground in the private energy market. But in other sectors, such as heavy industry or aviation, electricity is not a suitable source of energy. In their inaugural addresses, both Prof. dr. Martin Junginger and prof. dr. Gert Jan Kramer surmise that these sectors will continue to require hydrocarbons for use as fuel and raw material for the foreseeable future. Due to the fact that emissions need to be phased out as part of efforts to combat climate change, the professors consider the alternatives: organic, synthetic and clean fossil.

Biomass: sustainable production and smart usage

Prof. Martin Junginger claims that biomass can be a good alternative for the production of materials and energy. However: cultivating biomass often requires farmland, which is scarce. Junginger therefore argues that the efficient and sustainable production of biomass is crucial, but also underlines the need for broader discussion of the use of farmland and the optimal application of biomass. After all, there is little point in only applying sustainability criteria to the production of biomass for energy if more than three quarters of the world’s farmland is being used for luxury products such as meat, which do not need to be produced sustainably.

Junginger illustrates his case as follows: With the average amount of land required for the production of one kilo of beef, you could create 20 kilos of bioplastics. This could subsequently also be reused to produce enough biofuel to travel by car from Utrecht to Brussels. The optimal application of biomass demands smart choices, and it is these choices that Junginger would like to explore in more depth in the years ahead.

Technology wins

Prof. Gert Jan Kramer recognises the future role of biomass, but shares Junginger’s assessment that the amount of biomass available will be insufficient to create a CO2-free society on its own. And that is why we need alternatives. In his inaugural lecture, Kramer outlines the two options that represent the best prospects. The first is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a field in which Utrecht has a long-standing research tradition, but which is currently viewed as a method of last resort. So-called Solar Fuels, synthetic fuels that can be created using solar and wind energy, are the other option. However, in terms of technology, these are still a long way off.

Kramer’s key observation is that ‘technology wins’. If the technology is not present, nothing happens, however much we would like it to. But when the technology is there, it creates markets, and the energy issue can be addressed. The three options for alternative fuel – each extremely divergent in technological terms – all have their specific limitations: bio-energy due to scale, CCS due to acceptance and Solar Fuels due to the fact that the technology is not yet available. This situation is hampering the social decision-making process. With his professorship, Kramer will try to effect change in this area, so that technology can win.