HVO100. Is this the future for diesel engines in road transport?
In the 1989 film “Back to the Future part II” we see a fantastic vision of 2015, where cars not only fly, but are also powered by engines powered by garbage. It’s 2023 and cars still haven’t taken off in the air, as in the cinematic vision from years ago, but fuel from waste has become – in a sense, admittedly – a fact.
Modern automotive industry is rapidly moving towards zero emissions. Electric cars are already an everyday sight on European roads, and models powered by hydrogen cells are growing in popularity. From 2035, only new cars with alternative drives will be available in the European Union. In the case of trucks, however, electric (EV) and hydrogen (FCEV) vehicles are just entering the market, but today no one will deny that road transport will soon also be zero-emission.
The development of ecological power sources for trucks is still ongoing. The weight of batteries is decreasing, and the range of electric trucks is increasing. Models powered by fuel cells also exceed further barriers of the distance that can be travelled on one hydrogen refuelling. However, obstacles to the popularisation of EV and FCEV drive in road transport have not disappeared: infrastructure limitations (e.g. lack of charging or hydrogen refuelling stations on highways or expressways) and the still high purchase price of EV and FCEV models compared to their counterparts with diesel engines.
This means that diesel trucks will continue to dominate European roads in the coming years, but this does not mean that they cannot be even more environmentally friendly. They can be adapted to burn HVO100, i.e. synthetic and renewable diesel oil.
What is HVO100?
Can you imagine refuelling a powerful 13-litre, in-line, six-cylinder diesel engine powering a semi-tractor… with old oil used to fry french fries? Science fiction comparable to the waste-powered engine from “Back to the Future II”? Science by all means, but definitely not fiction anymore, but a reality instead. The matter is, of course, much more complicated, but in the simplest terms it can be said that – from a certain point of view – refuelling the HVO100 is just refuelling used cooking oil.
HVO100 is a second generation biofuel consisting of hydrogenated vegetable oil. The predecessor of HVO100, i.e. first generation biodiesel (FAME), is made from rapeseed oil methyl esters. HVO100 is produced from vegetable oils and food industry waste (fruit and vegetable leftovers, but also used cooking oils). This means that it is 100% renewable fuel. The number “100” in the name HVO100 means that the diesel fuel is made entirely from the raw materials listed above. However, it can be blended with diesel produced from crude oil. The proportion of HVO in relation to classic diesel oil is also determined by the number in the name: HVO30, HVO50, etc.
HVO was first introduced to the market in 2007 by the Finnish company Neste. This company remains the leader in HVO production to this day. In the following years, second-generation biodiesel was introduced to their offer by petrochemical companies such as the Italian Eni and the French TotalEnergies. HVO can be bought not only in Finland, but also in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The number of petrol stations in Europe where this fuel is available already exceeds a thousand. And more companies are investing in infrastructure for the production of HVO100. In Europe, the production of second-generation biodiesel is carried out in accordance with the EN15940 standard and – according to forecasts – it is expected to reach nearly 16 million tons annually by 2030. Currently, HVO accounts for 9% of total biodiesel production in Europe, but within five years it is expected to reach between 16% and 23%. This will pose some challenges for HVO producers as they need to secure supplies of raw materials for HVO production. The solution, which is already being implemented, includes, among others: import of palm fatty acid distillate from Asian countries. However, this also has a less positive side, more on that later.
Is HVO100 sustainable?
HVO is often called “green diesel”. Why? Of course, the use of this fuel does not completely eliminate carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, but if HVO is refuelled in its purest form, HVO100, CO2 emissions during combustion will be reduced by up to 90% compared to traditional diesel fuel. Green diesel also reduces particulate matter emissions by over 30% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 9%.
This fuel has a lower density than regular diesel, so it requires only minor adjustments to the vehicle’s engine, which involves adjusting the fuel injection system. This is a significant advantage because it is not a costly operation, nor does it constitute a deep interference in the vehicle’s mechanics. Moreover, after adapting the drive unit to HVO, you can still use traditional diesel, and second-generation biodiesel does not damage the engine seals in any way. Refuelling with HVO may also slightly increase the power of the truck’s engine and result in its increased efficiency.
Leading manufacturers of trucks and tractor units (including DAF, Scania and Mercedes-Benz) emphasise compliance with HVO standards in the drive units they offer, which meet EURO V and EURO VI standards.
In Europe, a litre of HVO diesel is approximately EUR 1 more expensive than a litre of traditional diesel because its production process is more expensive. So you can see that using second generation biodiesel may be slightly more expensive compared to classic diesel fuel. However, in a situation where shippers require their carriers to meet certain environmental conditions and the transport company does not yet have a sufficiently extensive fleet of zero-emission vehicles, HVO100 may allow them to meet these expectations and continue cooperation.
When talking about the sustainability level of HVO100, two aspects must be taken into account. The first one is lower gas emissions into the atmosphere when burning this fuel while driving, as we have already mentioned. The second is the sustainability of the second generation biodiesel production process itself. As Einride experts explain, if HVO is produced from waste materials, then we can say that it is manufactured in a sustainable way. However, if the biomass used to produce HVO was produced from the beginning with biodiesel in mind, then it can hardly be considered sustainable because it could have been used for much more necessary purposes, such as food or wood. Einride experts also indicate that there is currently not enough biomass in the world for HVO100 fuel to be produced in a fully sustainable way and meet the needs of the entire transport industry. To make this possible, biomass production would have to be increased just for this purpose, and this is potentially related to perhaps the most negative aspect of second-generation biodiesel – deforestation.
In Sweden (where in 2017 HVO accounted for as much as ⅔ of the biofuels produced there), as much as half of this fuel is produced from the previously mentioned palm oil. Unfortunately, the process of obtaining palm oil is extremely harmful to the environment, because it means excessive logging of palm forests, and thus the destruction of the rainforest ecosystem. Rapid deforestation to produce palm oil also reduces our planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide produced when burning fossil fuels. The case of Sweden also shows another negative side of HVO: most of the palm oil for its production is imported from Malaysia and Indonesia, and the transport process from Asia to Europe is not environmentally neutral.
Is HVO100 the future of road transport?
Despite its advantages over traditional diesel oil and other types of biodiesel, it is difficult to make a clear prediction that HVO will completely dominate the market in the near future. In Europe, you can now buy this fuel at a thousand petrol stations, but still not in all countries. The newest trucks and tractor units from the largest manufacturers are already adapted to use HVO, but the price of this fuel remains higher than standard diesel oil. More petrochemical companies are investing funds in second-generation biodiesel production plants, but such projects, due to their scale and complexity, must take years to complete. Moreover, although second generation biodiesel is much more environmentally friendly, it is not completely ecologically neutral. During the combustion process, CO2 is still released into the atmosphere, and the raw materials necessary for its production do not come from completely sustainable sources. Meanwhile, the direction towards automotive industry is heading, also set by EU regulations (e.g. Fit for 55), is clear: full zero emission, which also applies to road transport. Only electric and hydrogen drives will achieve this goal.
Taking into account all the above information, it can probably be concluded that HVO100 biodiesel (due to all its advantages, but also disadvantages and limitations in the availability of sustainable HVO ingredients that need to be overcome) will constitute a transitional stage before road transport becomes completely carbon neutral. From today’s perspective, it is clear that it will take some time, so it is not surprising that the fuel industry is investing more and more boldly in HVO100. Second generation biodiesel will therefore be the future of diesel, but only for a limited time before it is replaced by electricity and hydrogen.