Future Energy Leader View: Biorefineries for Advanced Low-Emissions Fuels

15th May 2020


The following article is part of the World Energy Council’s “Member Views” series featuring deep dives from industry experts into factors impacting the energy industry and energy transition. All messages are that of the individual and not necessarily reflected by the Council.

Author: Martina Lenzu

Martina Lenzu is a World Energy Council Future Energy Leader (FEL 100). She is a Chemical Engineer, with eight years’ work experience in Sarlux Refinery, the largest plant in the Mediterranean area and one of the most complex in Europe. Martina has held different positions of increasing responsibility and leadership in the process and analysis technical teams.

Future Energy Leader View: Biorefineries for Advanced Low-Emissions Fuels

The rapid rise in population is creating a number of challenges, noticeably growing demand for food, energy and water, all of which contribute to climate change at a time when we the world needs to drastically reduce greenhouse gases (GHG).

Over the long term, only the use of new technologies will make it possible to bridge the gap between economic growth and environmental sustainability: the transformation of biomasses of agricultural, industrial or natural origin allows to obtain substances that can be used as biofuels and intermediate chemical products, which in turn can be transformed into further products.

Biofuels already help in fighting climate change because they reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector. Biodiesel produced in Europe from rapeseed allows a greenhouse gas saving of 44% compared to fuels fossils while bioethanol obtained from beets allows 48% savings. Biofuels have the potential to be used in conventional or upgraded engines that currently rely solely on fossil fuels, potentially completing electrification of some parts of transportation. This is particularly valuable in industries like trucking, aviation and shipping for which long distances, heavy duty and the vehicles’ own lifespan are in fact entry barriers for new technologies, as described in this article.

Renewable Diesel

Renewable diesel fuels are produced through the hydrogenation of biodiesel (including vegetable oils, animal fats, algae and pyrolysis oils) in paraffinic hydrocarbons. Existing oil refineries can mix renewable fuels with other petroleum fuels during the hydrogenation process to create a renewable diesel blend. The biorefineries are able to produce 100% renewable diesel to be used directly or for blending with petroleum diesel in order to create a renewable diesel blend.

The process is based on the use of pure hydrogen to obtain a renewable component, the Green Diesel from HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil), a complete hydrocarbon with high energy content. The Green Diesel is a high-cetane gasoil and is a high-quality component for use in diesel fuel. The excellent characteristics of compatibility with fossil diesel make it suitable to be added to this in high percentages (much greater than those allowed for biodiesel in current regulations, the highest being 20%); for specially prepared vehicles it is also possible to use pure Green Diesel.

Examples of Biorefineries:

Eni’s biorefinery project in the industrial area of Venice is the first example in the world of transforming a conventional refinery into a biorefinery, capable of transforming organic raw materials into high quality biofuels. The plant produces green diesel, green naphtha, LPG and potentially even fuel for turbojets. By 2021 the Eni biorefinery in Venice will be able to work up to 560,000 tons of raw materials a year, increasingly using use cooking oils, vegetable oils and animal fats.

Neste has become the leading producer of renewable diesel in the world, with an annual production capacity of 2.7 million tons. Neste is also the world’s largest producer of renewable fuels from waste and residues. Currently Neste produces renewable diesel in Porvoo, Finland, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and in Singapore. Producing biofuels from wastes and residues (replacing crude oil) is resource efficient and an example of smart utilization of the globe’s resources, moreover this reduces the need to increase use of land to produce or to cultivate raw materials and provides significant climate benefits. Neste's proprietary NEXBTL technology enables the use of almost any waste fat or vegetable oils. The greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life cycle of Neste MY Renewable Diesel are on the average 90% smaller than those of fossil diesel.

UPM also plans to become a major player in Europe in the production of renewable, high quality advanced biofuels. UPM produces its advanced wood-based biofuel, UPM BioVerno, at the biorefinery in Lappeenranta, Finland, based on its own innovations to transform tall oil. UPM BioVerno is a high-quality renewable diesel that can be used as a blending component or as 100% fuel in all diesel engines. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to fossil diesel.

Europe’s Regulatory Scenario:

In December 2018, the revised Renewable Energy Directive 2018/2001/EU (RED II) entered into force. Under RED II, Member States must require fuel suppliers to supply at least 14% of the energy consumed in road and rail transport by 2030 as renewable energy.

RED II defines a set of sustainability and GHG emission criteria that bioliquids used in transport must meet to be counted against the general target of 14% and to be eligible for financial support from public authorities. RED II Introduces sustainability for forestry feedstocks as well as GHG criteria for solid and gaseous biomass fuels.

There is also a limit on ILUC (indirect land use change) that has been set because the production of biofuels generally takes place on land previously used for other agricultural activities such as the cultivation of food or feed. Since this agricultural production is still necessary, it can lead to the extension of agricultural land, possibly including areas with a high carbon stock such as forests, wetlands and peatlands. As this can cause the release of CO2 stored in the trees and in the soil, indirect land-use change risks cancelling the greenhouse gas savings resulting from the increase in biofuels.

The way forward:

Biorefineries are a path for higher-quality, lower-emissions and less-land intensive biofuels production, but there are many technical, strategic and commercial challenges that must be overcome as to achieve large-scale commercialization of their products. The best possible technologies for fermentation, gasification and chemical conversion must be identified, but also for the pre-treatment and storage of the different types of biomass to be used. A choral action of numerous partners is needed in addition to the industry to cover all the aspects of the complex biomass valorisation chain.

The development of the industry must be carried out in harmony with the territory. The local communities should benefit from the economic value creation by the means jobs, but also should become key contributors to the environmental sustainability and innovation of this industry. In addition to integrating with the local communities, the availability of biomass requires developing the relationship with suppliers, which allows the access to raw materials within a limited supply range.

The appropriate supply chain and distribution infrastructures go beyond the financial reach of individual private companies and therefore require public funding. Governments interested in supporting the development of biorefineries, for reasons of environmental protection and energy security, should therefore provide for important investments in R&D, in infrastructure, and thoughtful regulation to ensure food security and avoid changes in land use.

About the Author

Martina Lenzu is Future Energy Leader (FEL 100) with the World Energy Council. She is a Chemical Engineer, with eight years’ work experience in Sarlux Refinery, the largest plant in the Mediterranean area and one of the most complex in Europe. Martina has held different positions of increasing responsibility and leadership in the process and analysis technical teams.

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