Aux Biomass, Citoyens! France’s Bid for Net Zero and the biotechnology imperative

September 13, 2022 |

It’s been so warm and dry in France this year that the corn harvest is in rough condition. But having said that, the expansion of wind energy is bound to be exciting to fans of green hydrogen, and the technology coming out of France is exciting enough that, when the rains return, there will be much to celebrate on the right of the Atlantic in months and years to come.

Our light-speed tour of France’s resources has taken us from the fermentation experts in Champagne-Ardennes and down to the fermentation and synbio experts of southern France. The country has several centers of excellence — we’re always impressed by the productivity in science and biomass that is in evidence around Champagne-Ardennes and we’ve reported heavily from that region over the years. But there’s more to the prospects than the Grande Est. Toulouse remains a busy center for biotechnology, in the south, and the rise of sustainable aviation fuels is not hurt one little bit from the proximity there of Airbus.

Bio, Bio, Bio

On the food shelves at the markets, one thing you notice right away is that BIO is not a dirty word, as it has sometimes comes to be understood elsewhere. The BIO section is filled with healthier food choices, and there are countless product extensions that have BIO somewhere in the brand, ass a signifier of health and naturalness.

Signs of robust activity

We reported in July that Neste, MAN and Altens signed a partnership contract aimed at promoting biofuels in France. France is a strong market for biodiesel and FAME, but many OEMs would like to see more renewable diesel, also known as HVO100, on the market.

The objective of this partnership is to promote the common vision of Neste, MAN and Altens of the crucial role that biofuels can and must play in the sustainability transformation of the transportation of goods and people.

In March, we noted reports that that drivers are rushing to buy ethanol conversion kits in the face of rising gas prices and cheap ethanol. FlexFuel Energy Development that sells the conversion kits, for example, saw sales jump 80% in the first three weeks of March to 6,400 versus February while January sales were just 2,166, while other kit manufacturers are said to be reporting similar increases in demand. E85 is currently selling for just over a dollar per liter compared to $2.20 per liter of E10.

Late last year we highlighted France’s first carbon-negative building construction with this story oin hempcrete. And we published this review of France’s national Hydrogen strategy As a bonus, we highlighted the amazing suite of technologies from Axens and the folk at IFP, right here. Meanwhile, French Formula 4 racing teams are switching to biofuels, more on that here.And here’s news of moves on the cognac side to adopt flax bottling.  

Wait there, more, ore on on hydrogen that is, and here, a project coming from DOMO Chemicals and Hynamics.  Plus, an EU-wide bonus, let’s shine a light on policy initiatives such as ReFuelEU, with the European Parliament voting in support of draft rules to require SAF to account for at least 85 percent of European Union (EU) aviation fuel by 2050.

A Port-based strategy, where is it?

One thing you’d look around and not see in much evidence is the kind of activity at airports and marine ports — as a hub for bioeconomy projects. The kind of activity we see at Rotterdam — multiple players with interlocking and symbiotic technologies and a brassy sharing of infrastructure. That’s less in evidence at CDG than Schiphzl, at Marseilles than Rotterdam.

The Port of Le Havre has been playing catch-up with a sense of accelerating activity, but you have to scroll well past the stories of shifting to LNG and GTL to find more exciting projects like the HAROPA project which is studying green hydrogen as a propulsion system on the Seine. So, it’s there, it feels late and lacking in the highest levels of ambition, and remains an opportunity for the French more than an achieved reality.

The Bottom Line

It’s an old saying around the French, Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop:  Chase away the natural and it returns a-galloping. There’s not going to be any keeping down the French once they really put their valiant hearts into a world that is Bio, Bio, Bio and not just on the shelf at le marché. The resources are too strong, the biomass is there. As Raizen CEO Ricardo Mussa put it to us, “in the end, the strategic advantage is biomass, and only biomass” — we’d amend that to mention the value of a local market that keeps that biomass so close to its origin that the emissions in production are next to nothing and make biomass the go-to partner to offset the small but undeniable carbon footprint of wind and solar.

Technology? The French have is in spades. Now they I mention it, they invented the suit of spades in the card deck along with so many other technologies that we take for granted today. Perfecters of the watermill, home of the great yeast developers of yore, and builders of a shelf of technology at places like Axens it would an hour just to list.

The French will find a way, once they find the will, it was the thing that Napoleon found that distinguished his troops for a decade as they mastered the European battlefield. Will, and manoeuvre, that is. A good port strategy is a form of carbon manoeuvre, if you think about it — putting all the right assets int he right place, at the one time, linked to provide a maximum of mutual support and a hedge against the collapse of any single element or the force as a whole.

The Valley of the Seine to the port of Marseille, I recall it was the route that the volunteers took in the spring of 1792 when they came to the capital to defend their homeland under threat, giving their name (La Marseillaise) to a song that has no other direct reference to Marseille. That spirit is the will, I see an awakening in France but it will take more awakening to come for the homeland to once again be defended against this climate threat by a people who so love their country that so often one feels the emotion of it, even through a foreigner’s eyes. 

The threat is there, the cure is at hand.  Formez vos microbataillons, microorganisms! Marchons, marchons!

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