How viable are biofuels?

Gail Rajgor

Part three: BP and Neste are looking to biofuels in the future.

This article is taken from the November/December issue of Renewable Energy Focus (REFocus) magazine. For a free subscription, click here.

BP is expanding its biofuels production capabilities. In September, it agreed to increase its share in Brazilian biofuel company Tropical BioEnergia S.A. to 100%, by acquiring the remaining 50% of the company from its current joint venture partners - for a total cash consideration of approximately US$71 million.

The firm intends to double the size of the operations at Tropical BioEnergia to a capacity of five million tonnes of crushed cane - or 450 million litres of ethanol equivalent - per year, and also to expand operations in the region. It also acquired an additional 3% share in Brazilian sugar and ethanol producer Companhia Nacional de Açúcar e Álcool (CNAA) from LDC Bioenergia S.A. for a price of approximately US$25m, to take its overall share ownership in CNAA to 99.97%.

“This is another significant milestone in BP's global biofuel strategy as we expand our operations base and demonstrate our genuine commitment to Brazil's ethanol industry, which can deliver sustainable and competitive biofuels into the global market,” says Philip New, vice president of BP Biofuels.

The firm is also investigating the use of non-food feedstocks at its BP Biofuels Global Technology Centre in San Diego, CA, having acquired the centre as part of its US$98.3m acquisition of Verenium Corporation's lignocellulosic biofuels assets. The acquisition also saw it become the sole owner of Galaxy Biofuels LLC and Vercipia Biofuels.

In addition, BP is investing in the development of biobutenol, a next-generation advanced biofuel; it has established a technology demonstration with DuPont in Hull, UK. “Biobutanol is an advanced biofuel with a higher energy content than ethanol, which can be produced using existing feedstocks such as sugar cane, wheat or corn as well as the feedstocks of tomorrow, including dedicated energy grasses,” it says. It “can also be blended with gasoline at a higher percentage than ethanol, and used in existing vehicles without requiring engine modifications. This will help to speed up the introduction of biofuels.”

BP expects that ethanol production plants, including one it is building with DuPont and British Sugar under the name of Vivergo Fuels (also in Hull) will be retrofitted to produce biobutanol. For now, the Hull plant, when operational, will have capacity to produce 420 million litres of ethanol.

Biodiesel boost

Meantime, Neste Oil in Europe is involved in advanced biomass to liquid biodiesel projects.

The firm has invested heavily in expanding its renewable diesel production capacity. It produces NExBTL renewable diesel at two units at its Porvoo refinery in Finland, one in Singapore, and a fourth in Rotterdam, which started production in September. The Rotterdam plant has a capacity of 800,000 t/a, increasing Neste Oil's total renewable diesel capacity to 2 million t/a, and “will help us meet demand in the European market, the world's largest for renewable diesel”, according to Neste Oil's president and ceo, Matti Lievonen.

The diesel is produced by hydrotreating vegetable or waste oils and “has been proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 40% over the product's entire life cycle when compared to fossil diesel”, according to the company. At the moment, it uses a mix of palm oil, stearin and palm oil fatty acid distillate (PFAD), which are by-products of palm oil production; rapeseed oil; jatropha oil; camelina oil; soybean oil; as well as waste animal fat produced by the food processing industry.

Meanwhile, Neste Oil is continuing an active programme of R&D on biofuels and raw materials suitable for biofuel usage: “Widening the raw material base is one of the company's main future goals,” it says, noting that about 80% of its R&D costs (totalling approximately €40m annually) are directed to researching renewable raw materials. The research has a strong focus on a variety of non-food raw materials, as well as raw materials that can reduce areas of land used for energy production, and capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

The potential for using waste fat from the fish processing industry and pine oil are two areas, while entirely new raw materials - such as algae and microbial oils - as well as on biowax produced from forest harvesting waste, are also being investigated. “The biggest challenge is to increase production volumes up to industrial levels, to millions of tonnes per year,” it says.

Interested in more R&D information on biofuels and companies working in the field? Check out the new Elsevier Biofuel solution here.

About the author: Gail Rajgor is a writer working across the energy & environment sector. She is the former publisher of Sustainable Energy Developments magazine.

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