This month Scottish aerospace company Orbex revealed a prototype of its new Prime rocket, designed to launch small, commercial satellites. The 19m-long rocket, due for its first ever take-off later this year, is to be powered by bio-propane which Orbex says would produce 96% less carbon emissions than fossil fuels.
Though perhaps not as exciting as UK rocket launches, there are a plethora of other potential applications for bio-propane. It is identical to fossil-fuel derived liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and therefore can be used to replace it with no modifications to equipment required.
Currently LPG is used for space and water heating in off-gas grid homes and businesses, as well as in forklift trucks. There are a few cars and other road vehicles that have been converted to LPG – a cheaper option than petrol or diesel, although there are far fewer outlets.
Propane – bio or otherwise – is a clean burning fuel that can be transported in a compressed liquid form. It has higher energy density than other low emission fuels such as compressed or liquefied natural gas or biomethane.
A renewable fuel, bio-propane can be produced from several different sources using a variety of methods. Its carbon footprint will depend on the source used to create it, although it will always have a lower footprint than fossil fuels. Most bio-propane is currently produced as a co-product of the hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) process for producing renewable diesel.
The world’s biggest producer is NESTE, at its Rotterdam refinery. The UK currently imports its bio-propane; the UK’s leading supplier, Calor, gets its bio-propane from NESTE.
Other methods of making bio-propane, which aren’t commercial yet, include using special microbes to ferment organic wastes so that they produce bio-propane and direct synthesis of propane from the gasification of woody biomass. The University of Manchester is one of the academic institutions pursuing the synthesis of bio-propane.
Looking to the future, an interesting use for bio-propane would be to fuel range extenders for electric trucks. Dutch company Emoss has already developed an electric HGV with a tank for LPG which is used to power an electric generator to power its batteries. Bio-propane could be used instead of LPG, to extend the range of larger electric vehicles.
Bio-propane is just one of a range of renewable fuels that could help us move closer to our net zero goals. Although Government policy is important in encouraging switches to alternative fuel sources, it is important for businesses to look at all the available options too.
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