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Merica Acquires Majority Stake in Choren

Today it was announced that my new company, Merica International, has acquired Shell’s stake in Choren Industries. This is something we have been actively pursuing for some time. This transaction gives Merica a great deal more flexibility than we had previously.

The primary reason for the acquisition is that it gives us freedom to pursue the projects we want to pursue. While I have the greatest respect for Shell, our interests obviously would not always align with theirs. We are first and foremost a bioenergy company, and that is not their core business.

Further, if Choren wanted to make any major capital expenditures, it hinged on getting Shell’s agreement. As Shell is in a major cost-cutting mode, a lot of the projects we want to pursue could have been potentially impacted. Shell Fischer-Tropsch technology will still be used in Choren’s Freiberg BTL facility, but future decision-making will be simplified.

Here are excerpts of the story from Reuters:

Shell sells stake in German biofuel firm Choren

HAMBURG, Nov 5 (Reuters) – Oil major Royal Dutch Shell has sold its shareholding in German second-generation biofuels company Choren, Choren said on Thursday.

Choren is building Germany’s first biofuels plant using new generations of non-food raw materials as feedstock and is likely to start initial commercial production in 2010.

Shell had sold its minority shareholding to other shareholders which comprise German vehicles groups Volkswagen and Daimler plus a consortium of investors largely from the Hamburg region, Choren said in a statement.

Merica is within that “consortium of investors”, and is in fact the majority shareholder of the company now.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | btl, Choren, Merica, Shell | 16 Comments

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 2

In this installment, I continue to work my way through the list of questions recently submitted by readers. This post picks up where Part 1 left off, and covers coal-to-liquids, technology hype, green gasoline, refining improvements, allocation of money toward renewables, electricity consumption, the Automotive X Prize, Big Oil, cellulosic ethanol, and Exxon’s recent algae announcement.

The Questions

Benny wrote: Arlington researchers’ work could lead to $35-a-barrel oil. Any chance of making oil from lignite? At these prices? Or are they just some guys who want research money? Answer

takchess wrote (and Doug also asked about): Thought this was interesting. If cost and technically feasible this would be cool.

Rive Technology Working to Increase Oil Refining Efficiency 7-9% by 2011 Answer

DDHv wrote: The new ionic liquid technique allows easier extraction of cellulose. Do you know if we have enough information yet to do energy and/or economic balances? If so, what are the present results? Improvements are likely, given the novelty of the technique. Answer

John asked: What do you think of pyloric conversion to make “green gasoline”? What are it’s peak lite and environmental ramifications? Specifically referring to an article in the Boston Globe RE: Anellotech and UMAss on July 13th: The greening of gasoline Answer

PeteS asked: How likely is money spent today on renewables to be wasted in retrospect because of “grey swans”? Obviously nobody can predict the future, but I’m thinking more in terms of, say, a plan to completely power a country from wind turbines, versus low-to-medium-probability dramatic improvements in wind-power within a decade or two. Answer

SamG wrote: I hear many theories about electricity consumption and the utility business model (sell more make more). Do you see any mechanism that puts suppliers in the loop for the reduction of consumption (not just demand reduction via passing through higher prices)? Answer

takchess asked: Any comments on this Urea fueled entry into the XPrize auto race?

Alternative Fuel Sciences Answer

John wrote: Americans are being “taxed” at a rate of 200 billion bucks a year to fund the U.S. Military to “baby-sit” the Strait of Hormuz and other oil company interests in the mid-east, etc.

Factor that in and the bio-fuels look good, as do CNG, electric vehicles or bio-fuel-electric hybrids. Imagine that…. a bio-fuel-electric hybrid. That completely shuts out the oil companies and their little “gasoline forever” game. The fact that bio-fuels, CNG and electricity are already cheaper than gasoline must be giving the traditional oil companies nightmares already. Answer

LovesoiL wrote: 1) What is a reasonable pace towards commercialization of ‘1st generation’ alternative fuels, e.g., cellulosic. Many ethanol advocates (DoE, USDA, EPA, US Congress) assume that while only 1 commercial scale facility is currently in construction (Range), somehow 1 billon gallons of annual capacity will get built during the next 3-5 years, and then we’ll build that much (30-40 plants) every year for the next decade?

2) How long is needed to operate a 1st gen facility to optimize its processing and demonstrate profitability before investors will agree to pay another ~$300 million build the 2nd facility?

3) Both Choren and Range fuels have gasification of woody biomass as the first step for their transformation process. Choren finished construction a year ago and has been in the commissioning process ever since. Range says they will finish construction 1Q 2010, and begin ethanol production in 2Q 2010. Can Range really begin production that soon?

4) Ask POET what they think of cellulosic from corn stover. They seem to say that stover has too many collection and handling problems (dirty, low density, etc), and that is one reason they are concentrating on cobs only. Many others assume corn stover will be the primary source of cellulosic feedstock. Answer

Anonymous wrote: While you’re in Alberta, ask about Iogen and when they’ll finally get their cellulosic plant started in Sask. Also, Enerkem has been making news lately, both with a 10 mgy MSW plant and their just-released plans to construct a $100 million R&D facility in Edmonton. EnerkemR&D EnerkemMSWPlant Answer

bts asked: Comments on this partnership between Venter and Exxon?

Exxon to Invest Millions to Make Fuel From Algae Answer

The Answers

Answer

You always have to read between the lines. Sometimes people talk about where costs might be “in a few years” or “with technical breakthroughs” – as is often the case with algal biodiesel (and has been the case with oil shale for 100 years). Not that this is necessarily the case here, but those are the kinds of things I look for as I read these press releases. Is it possible to make oil from coal? Sure, it just traditionally takes a lot of energy. Coal into oil is essentially what you are doing with CTL, and there are several variations of the process (including non-gasification options). South Africa has been doing it for a while now.

So what the UTA researchers are describing is a chemical process for turning coal into oil. Such processes do exist, so the question is whether this is novel, cheaper, more efficient, etc. That will require peeling a few more layers of the onion than what one finds in a press release – where the best you may get is caveats. Generally speaking, press releases tend to over-simplify things a lot. If even a tenth of the press releases on “the next big thing” had turned out to be true, we would be living in a very different world. My favorite pasttime might be loading the family up in my cold fusion-powered hovercraft for a family outing. Or knocking out essays on my DNA-based computer (I remember in 1995 or so when this was going to put Intel out of business).

People have all sorts of motives for these press releases. Some are to announce something truly revolutionary. Those are a tiny fraction. More often, it is as you say; someone is trying to catch the eye of someone who might fund them. I have been in a position many times to issue just such a press release, and sometimes I think about that when I see one of these.

For instance, in 1994 at Texas A&M I had an idea to create a cellulose reactor based on the contents of termites’ stomachs. To my knowledge, I was the first person to attempt such a thing. The experiment didn’t turn out very well. My analysis detected only a small amount of butanol in the product. Had my imagination been big enough, here was the press release: “A&M Researcher Turns Trash into Fuel.” For the story, I could project increases in yields, renewable butanol bringing Arab sheiks to their knees, and an actual use for those pesky termites. Of course as my yield projections go up, my cost projections go down, and I could predict that this “may soon lead to sub-$1/gal fuel.” In reality, I considered it a failed experiment, stopped work, and wrote up my dissertation. But that is the sort of experience that always has me looking at these press releases in a pretty skeptical light.

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Answer

Jim, this is along the lines of my last answer. People are working on these catalysts all the time. I have spent time in the lab working on gasification catalysts, and sometimes you come across something that looks pretty interesting. Then you try to scale it up and find that it isn’t stable in a larger reactor because the temperatures are hotter than they were in the lab.

Again, without peeling the onion and having a look at what everyone else is doing, it is impossible to tell whether this really amounts to something special. It could be that their competitors have already achieved these milestones and just didn’t issue press releases. Most organizations don’t. I was awarded several patents from my days at ConocoPhillips, but we never issued a press release even though the potential implications of some of them were pretty interesting.

One thing I will say is that from my time in a refinery, there wasn’t 7-9% efficiency gain to be had. We were already pushing the maximum possible conversion efficiency of oil into liquid products, and while you might have squeezed out another 2-3%, no way could you get up into the 8% range. There may be some really inefficient refineries out there that could benefit from this, but we will have to wait a couple of years and see if they actually start penetrating the market. Then you will know that they indeed invented something with a distinct advantage over the competitors.

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Answer

There are a couple of developments in cellulose chemistry that I have been watching pretty closely: The ionic liquid techniques that you mentioned, and supercritical cellulose chemistry with either CO2 or ethanol.

Both of these techniques are energy intensive, so a lot of work needs to be done around the economics of these processes relative to competing technologies. A number of questions arise, such as “What other components are extracted along with the cellulose?” Or “What does it take to separate the cellulose from the component used to extract it?” That isn’t to say that these technologies aren’t well-worth further exploration. From an academic standpoint, they are very interesting. In the end, I think they will be hard pressed to compete with gasification if the intent is production of fuels. However, specialty chemicals might turn out to be a good niche application for these techniques.

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Answer

Building on the previous answer, I think the more interesting developments in lignocellulosic chemistry are in chemical processing, as opposed to biochemical processing. I discussed this in an essay a couple of years ago, which was about Vinod Khosla’s investment into KiOR. This is their approach as well; to use catalytic processes to produce fuel.

The challenge is that biomass isn’t very energy dense, and these processes require elevated temperatures and pressures. So a key question is how much energy (and in what form) it takes to transport one BTU of biomass and process it into one BTU of fuel. Presently I think the processing energy is a pretty high fraction of the contained energy. Those energy inputs are going to have to come down before these sorts of technologies make much of an impact. The research is certainly promising, and I favor continued government funding. Would I invest in a company based on this concept? Not at this stage of development.

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Answer

Generally speaking, I think we are going to look back and see that we wasted tremendous money, time, and resources chasing dead ends. As you say, nobody knows what developments are in front of us. But many are betting that there are revolutionary developments that will transform the energy sector. As a result, they are throwing a lot of money in a lot of different directions. I don’t have a big problem with this if the proper due diligence is done, especially if private money is being used to fund these various ventures. I do agree with Vinod Khosla’s philosophy of spreading his bets across many different technologies. What I find annoying is that often the proper due diligence is not done, and often taxpayer money ends up funding these dead ends. That is money that is truly wasted.

However, one thing to keep in mind with respect to your “grey swans” is that they also have entrenched lobbies to contend with. It may turn out that the grey swan finds itself in a difficult fight to penetrate the market. One particular example I am thinking of is the decision of Congress to kill support for more efficient 2nd generation green diesel production because the inefficient 1st generation producers argued that it would put them out of business. Add in the fact that it was an oil company involved in the 2nd generation technology, and we find that grey swan struggling to survive.

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Answer

Sam, I don’t see an easy answer to that. Utilities are in the business of making money. When people reduce consumption it costs them money. Is there a way that they can benefit from that? I suppose in a world in which we are taxing carbon emissions, the savings from lower emissions would partially offset the loss of the sale of the electricity. But truthfully, that will be a small fraction at best. I always had the same issue when I was in the oil business. I wanted to see lower consumption, and I couldn’t see any way the oil companies could benefit directly from that. I think an effective mechanism for enabling suppliers to benefit from lower consumption would really be a game changer. If you think of something, let me know.

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Answer

When I first saw this, I thought “That’s one of the strangest energy-related stories I have ever seen.” It reminded me of my reaction to a recent story: Greenland shark may become new source of biofuel. I like the wild and wacky, and both of these fall into that category. But can it make an impact? The problem with the urea idea is that the fuel is actually ammonia and hydrogen. Where do those come from? Mostly from natural gas. If you look at the efficiencies of the processes involved, you would be far better off just to burn the natural gas. So I don’t see it going far in its current form, but I applaud the creativity. Who knows, maybe this will evolve into something more promising.

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Answer

John, while I agree that we are spending dollars in the Middle East because of oil, I disagree with several of your points. First, we aren’t spending that money to guard oil company interests. It is being done with the intent to keep cheap oil flowing to the American consumer. So the key interest here is that of the U.S. government, so the voting public is kept happy. Not that there is no benefit to the oil companies, but the government views a military presence there as an important issue of national security – not one of oil company security. If the oil did get cut off, the average person is going to bear the consequences.

I also disagree with your comment that biofuels are cheaper than gasoline. There are some exceptions – like sugarcane ethanol from Brazil – but for the most part gasoline is cheaper based on energy content. For instance, at today’s close ethanol on the CBOT for September delivery was trading for $1.65 a gallon. Gasoline on the NYMEX today was trading for $2.07/gal. However, because of the difference in energy content, the cost of this ethanol was $21.71/MMBTU and the gasoline was $18/MMBTU. With rare exceptions over the years, this has always been the case – and at times the differences have been quite large.

Further, you are kidding yourself if you think the oil companies are running scared. As I have pointed out before, it is a matter of scale. If corn ethanol started to look like a viable, long-term business model for them, the oil companies would just buy their way in as Valero recently did. Oil companies won’t sit around and go extinct because some fancy new biofuel put them out of business. They have big R&D budgets, and their efforts likely cover every biofuel you ever heard of (and many options you probably haven’t).

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Answer

1. Put me down as someone who believes that the one currently under construction – Range Fuels – is going to see their schedule continue to slip, and I believe they are going to have a difficult time meeting production goals. Multiple sources are telling me that they have some issues.

Further, the national projected ramp-up in cellulosic ethanol – if it happens at all – will be a fraction of what has been projected. Right now there isn’t even a clear pathway. It’s like marking out the road map for curing various cancers over the next few years. It is great to have such a road map, but you are assuming technological breakthroughs that may not happen. Right now cellulosic ethanol still looks to me like a niche, and not a scalable, mainstream fuel.

2. That’s a good question, because I am aware of just such a situation now. Investors are dragging their feet on Plant #2 because Plant #1 is still not producing per the plan. In general, I think if a 1st gen facility comes online and starts to deliver per expectations, money will start to flow pretty quickly. I would think within 6 months of delivering, investors will be ready to jump in. But it is going to take more than 6 months to optimize production to optimize one of these next generation plants once it starts up. There isn’t a blueprint for success, and novel problems are going to be encountered and have to be solved.

3. No, the schedule for Range will slip because they still have kinks to work out. Write it down and hold me to it.

4. Here is what POET said about stover: “The yield of cobs is 0.65 tons/acre, and we can collect them commingled with grain with a modified combine. Or we can collect them with stover coming out of the back of the combine. The bulk density for cobs is higher than for stover, and that makes them easier to separate. We make sure sufficient stover is left on the field for erosion control and nutrition. We are focused on cobs because the bulk density for cobs is better than for stover, and cobs have 16% more carbohydrates than the stover. We don’t have to leave all stover in the field necessarily over soil depletion issues; we have just chosen to focus on cobs. How much one can remove depends on soil type, location, and tillage practice. Cobs take those variables away.”

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Answer

I did ask about both Iogen and Enerkem while I was in Alberta. My hosts were quite skeptical that Iogen will ever build a commercial plant. I will say that they have enough demonstration level experience that it is suspicious that they don’t have plants sprouting up everywhere. After all, they have been producing cellulosic ethanol at small scale for 5 years. There are people that have been producing it for 0 years who are in the process of building plants. Given that governments are throwing money at anything looking like cellulosic ethanol, I think this puts a big question mark over their true commercial viability (at least at the present state of their technology).

There was less talk about Enerkem, and frankly before the trip I didn’t know much about them. The talk I did hear was that Enerkem is really only focused on the front end of a GTL plant (the gasification step). Enerkem’s view is that their post-gasification steps are flexible, and they can produce a variety of chemicals. They have announced that one site will produce ethanol (this is not the most efficient usage of syngas, by the way). Enerkem’s Press Release page certainly implies that they are busy with projects.

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Answer

I think there are two approaches to algal fuel that might work. One is if algae can be made to naturally excrete oil. If so, then it may be possible to let the oil layer build up and then skim it. This avoids the materials handling nightmare of separating the algae from the water, and then the oil from the algae. This is apparently the focus of the research. Still, it is a long shot. Exxon’s VP for R&D was quoted as saying “I am not going to sugarcoat this — this is not going to be easy. Any large-scale commercial plants to produce algae-based fuels are at least 5 to 10 years away.” I think that is a realistic assessment. If the breakthrough came tomorrow then you are still looking at piloting and finally commercialization. I don’t think that is likely to happen in 5 years. So first you have to have some technical breakthroughs – and those aren’t a given – and if you pass through that gate then you won’t see this on the market for 10 years. I believe that is a realistic assessment.

The second approach that might work is if a valuable product – such as a pharmaceutical – is being produced as the primary product, and oil is being produced as a co-product. The expense of collecting and processing algae is just too great for oil to be the primary purpose of the operation.

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August 4, 2009 Posted by | algal biodiesel, biodiesel, biogasoline, Choren, coal, ExxonMobil, green diesel, Iogen, range fuels, refining, Vinod Khosla | 39 Comments

Rentech Announces BTL Plant

Still on vacation, but an interesting announcement yesterday by Rentech:

Rialto Project

Our proposed Rialto Renewable Energy Center (Rialto Project) will be located in Rialto, California. The facility is designed to produce approximately 600 barrels per day of pure renewable synthetic fuels and export approximately 35 megawatts of renewable electric power. The renewable power is expected to qualify under California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) program, which requires utilities to increase the amount of electric power they sell from qualified renewable-energy resources. The plant will be capable of providing enough electricity for approximately 30,000 homes.

Rentech has entered into a licensing agreement with SilvaGas Corporation for the biomass gasification technology for the Rialto facility. Rentech’s proprietary technology for the conditioning and clean-up of syngas will provide the next critical link in the technology chain after gasification. The conditioned syngas will be converted by the Rentech Process in a commercial scale reactor to finished, ultra-clean products such as synthetic diesel and naphtha using upgrading technologies under an alliance between Rentech and UOP, a Honeywell Company. Renewable electric power will be produced at the facility by using conventional high-efficiency gas turbine technology. The power is anticipated to be sold to local utilities under the California RPS program.

The primary feedstock for the Rialto Project will be urban woody green waste such as yard clippings, for which Rentech is currently negotiating supply agreements. The location of the project will provide local green waste haulers with a cost-effective alternative to increasingly scarce landfills for the disposal of woody green waste. The plant is designed to also use biosolids for a portion of the feedstock which is expected to be provided under a supply agreement with EnerTech Environmental.

Readers may know that I am quite interested in gasification as a long-term sustainable option for delivering liquid fuels and/or electricity. (See previous essays on Choren, who have built the world’s first scaled-up BTL plant).

Incidentally, their CTO used to be my direct supervisor at ConocoPhillips in 2002-2003:

Dr. Harold A. Wright – Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer

Dr. Harold Wright leverages deep experience in fuel technology development to serve as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Rentech. He joined the Company in 2005 after serving as Vice President of Technology for Eltron Research & Development, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. This followed a 14-year tenure with ConocoPhillips where he worked in various capacities including Director of gas-to-liquids (GTL) research and development from 2004-05 and Director of synthesis gas development from 2000-04. In these roles, he was responsible for synthesis gas technology development; GTL commercial reactor design; directing GTL catalyst development; and product upgrading technology development. He oversaw all aspects of the company’s scale-up of GTL technology, which resulted in a 400 barrel per day demonstration plant in Ponca City, Oklahoma. With 24 U.S. Patents issued to his credit, he is also a registered patent agent and is authorized to practice patent law before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Dr. Wright received a B.S. in chemical engineering, cum laude, from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Purdue University.

Returning to Texas from Hawaii this evening, with things returning to normal over the next few days.

May 12, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, btl, Choren, Rentech | 40 Comments

Renewable Diesel Primer

Given the recent news that biodiesel has caused buses in Minnesota to malfunction in cold weather, I thought this would be a good time to review the differences between diesel, biodiesel, and green diesel. In order to explain the key issues, I am going to excerpt from the chapter on renewable diesel that I wrote for Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems: Benefits and Risks.

First, what happened in Minnesota?



Biodiesel fuel woes close Bloomington schools

All schools in the Bloomington School District will be closed today after state-required biodiesel fuel clogged in school buses Thursday morning and left dozens of students stranded in frigid weather, the district said late Thursday.

Rick Kaufman, the district’s spokesman, said elements in the biodiesel fuel that turn into a gel-like substance at temperatures below 10 degrees clogged about a dozen district buses Thursday morning. Some buses weren’t able to operate at all and others experienced problems while picking up students, he said.

And in case you think this was an isolated incident:

The decision to close school today came after district officials consulted with several neighboring districts that were experiencing similar problems. Bloomington staffers tried to get a waiver to bypass the state requirement and use pure diesel fuel, but they weren’t able to do so in enough time, Kaufman said. They also decided against scheduling a two-hour delay because the temperatures weren’t expected to rise enough that the problem would be eliminated.

What is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is defined as the mono-alkyl ester product derived from lipid1 feedstock like SVO or animal fats (Knothe 2001). The chemical structure is distinctly different from petroleum diesel, and biodiesel has somewhat different physical and chemical properties from petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel is normally produced by reacting triglycerides (long-chain fatty acids contained in the lipids) with an alcohol in a base-catalyzed reaction (Sheehan 1998) as shown in Figure 1. Methanol, ethanol, or even longer chain alcohols may be used as the alcohol, although lower-cost and faster-reacting methanol2 is typically preferred. The primary products of the reaction are the alkyl ester (e.g., methyl ester if methanol is used) and glycerol. The key advantage over straight vegetable oil (SVO) is that the viscosity is greatly reduced, albeit at the cost of additional processing and a glycerol byproduct.

The key thing to note here is that biodiesel contains oxygen atoms (the ‘O’ in the biodiesel structure above), but petroleum diesel and green diesel do not. This leads to different physical properties for biodiesel.

Biodiesel Characteristics

Biodiesel is reportedly nontoxic and biodegradable (Sheehan et al. 1998). An EPA study published in 2002 showed that the impact of biodiesel on exhaust emissions was mostly favorable (EPA 2002). Compared to petroleum diesel, a pure blend of biodiesel was estimated to increase the emission of NOx by 10%, but reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and particulate matter by almost 50%. Hydrocarbon emissions from biodiesel were reduced by almost 70% relative to petroleum diesel. However, other researchers have reached different conclusions. While confirming the NOx reduction observed in the EPA studies, Altin et al. determined that both biodiesel and SVO increase CO emissions over petroleum diesel (Altin et al. 2001). They also determined that the energy content of biodiesel and SVO was about 10% lower than for petroleum diesel. This means that a larger volume of biodiesel consumption is required per distance traveled, increasing the total emissions over what a comparison of the exhaust concentrations would imply.

The natural cetane3 number for biodiesel in the 2002 EPA study was found to be higher than for petroleum diesel (55 vs. 44). Altin et al. again reported a different result, finding that in most cases the natural cetane numbers were lower for biodiesel than for petroleum diesel. These discrepancies in cetane results have been attributed to the differences in the quality of the oil feedstock, and to whether the biodiesel had been distilled (Van Gerpen 1996).

A major attraction of biodiesel is that it is easy to produce. An individual with a minimal amount of equipment or expertise can learn to produce biodiesel. With the exception of SVO, production of renewable diesel by hobbyists is limited to biodiesel because a much larger capital expenditure is required for other renewable diesel technologies.

Biodiesel does have characteristics that make it problematic in cold weather conditions. The cloud and pour points4 of biodiesel can be 20° C or higher than for petroleum diesel (Kinast 2003). This is a severe disadvantage for the usage of biodiesel in cold climates, and limits the blending percentage with petroleum diesel in cold weather.

Green Diesel

Definition

Another form of renewable diesel is ‘green diesel.’ Green diesel is chemically the same as petroleum diesel, but it is made from recently living biomass. Unlike biodiesel, which is an ester and has different chemical properties from petroleum diesel, green diesel is composed of long-chain hydrocarbons, and can be mixed with petroleum diesel in any proportion for use as transportation fuel. Green diesel technology is frequently referred to as second-generation renewable diesel technology.

There are two methods of making green diesel. One is to hydroprocess vegetable oil or animal fats. Hydroprocessing may occur in the same facilities used to process petroleum. The second method of making green diesel involves partially combusting a biomass source to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen – syngas – and then utilizing the Fischer-Tropsch reaction to produce complex hydrocarbons. This process is commonly called the biomass-to-liquids, or BTL process.

Hydroprocessing

Hydroprocessing is the process of reacting a feed stock with hydrogen under elevated temperature and pressure in order to change the chemical properties of the feed stock. The technology has long been used in the petroleum industry to ‘crack’, or convert very large organic molecules into smaller organic molecules, ranging from those suitable for liquid petroleum gas (LPG) applications through those suitable for use as distillate fuels.

In recent years, hydroprocessing technology has been used to convert lipid feed stocks into distillate fuels. The resulting products are a distillate fuel with properties very similar to petroleum diesel, and propane (Hodge 2006). The primary advantages over first-generation biodiesel technology are: 1). The cold weather properties are superior; 2). The propane byproduct is preferable over glycerol byproduct; 3). The heating content is greater; 4). The cetane number is greater; and 5). Capital costs and operating costs are lower (Arena et al. 2006).

A number of companies have announced renewable diesel projects based on hydroprocessing technology. In May 2007 Neste Oil Corporation in Finland inaugurated a plant that will produce 170,000 t/a of renewable diesel fuel from a mix of vegetable oil and animal fat (Neste 2007). Italy’s Eni has announced plans for a facility in Leghorn, Italy that will hydrotreat vegetable oil for supplying European markets. Brazil’s Petrobras is currently producing renewable diesel via their patented hydrocracking technology (NREL 2006). And in April 2007 ConocoPhillips, after testing their hydrocracking technology to make renewable diesel from rapeseed oil in Whitegate, Ireland, announced a partnership with Tyson Foods to convert waste animal fat into diesel (ConocoPhillips 2007).

Like biodiesel production, which normally utilizes fossil fuel-derived methanol, hydroprocessing requires fossil fuel-derived hydrogen5. No definitive life cycle analyses have been performed for diesel produced via hydroprocessing. Therefore, the energy return and overall environmental impact have yet to be quantified.

Biomass-to-Liquids

When an organic material is burned (e.g., natural gas, coal, biomass), it can be completely oxidized (gasified) to carbon dioxide and water, or it can be partially oxidized to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter partial oxidation (POX), or gasification reaction, is accomplished by restricting the amount of oxygen during the combustion. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called synthesis gas (syngas) and can be used as the starting material for a wide variety of organic compounds, including transportation fuels.

Syngas may be used to produce long-chain hydrocarbons via the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction. The FT reaction, invented by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s, was used by Germany during World War II to produce synthetic fuels for their war effort. The FT reaction has received a great deal of interest lately because of the potential for converting natural gas, coal, or biomass into liquid transportation fuels. These processes are respectively referred to as gas-to-liquids (GTL), coal-to-liquids (CTL), and biomass-to-liquids (BTL), and the resulting fuels are ‘synthetic fuels’ or ‘XTL fuels’. Of the XTL processes, BTL produces the only renewable fuel, as it utilizes recently anthropogenic (atmospheric) carbon.

Renewable diesel produced via BTL technology has one substantial advantage over biodiesel and hydrocracking technologies: Any source of biomass may be converted via BTL. Biodiesel and hydrocracking processes are limited to lipids. This restricts their application to a feedstock that is very small in the context of the world’s available biomass. BTL is the only renewable diesel technology with the potential for converting a wide range of waste biomass.

Like GTL and CTL, development of BTL is presently hampered by high capital costs. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2006, capital costs per daily barrel of production are $15,000-20,000 for a petroleum refinery, $20,000-$30,000 for an ethanol plant, $30,000 for GTL, $60,000 for CTL, and $120,000-$140,000 for BTL (EIA 2006).

While a great deal of research, development, and commercial experience has gone into FT technology in recent years6, biomass gasification biomass gasification technology is a relatively young field, which may partially explain the high capital costs. Nevertheless, the technology is progressing. Germany’s Choren is building a plant in Freiberg, Germany to produce 15,000 tons/yr of their SunDiesel® product starting in 2008 (Ledford 2006).

Straight Vegetable Oil

Unmodified vegetable-derived triglycerides, commonly known as vegetable oil, may also be used to fuel a diesel engine. Rudolf Diesel demonstrated the use of peanut oil as fuel for one of his diesel engines at the Paris Exposition in 1900 (Altin et al. 2001). Modern diesel engines are also capable of running on straight (unmodified) vegetable oil (SVO) or waste grease, with some loss of power over petroleum diesel (West 2004). Numerous engine performance and emission tests have been conducted with SVO derived from many different sources, either as a standalone fuel or as a mixture with petroleum diesel (Fort and Blumberg 1982, Schlick et al. 1988, Hemmerlein et al. 1991, Goering et al. 1982).

The advantage of SVO as fuel is that a minimal amount of processing is required, which lowers the production costs of the fuel. The energy return for SVO, defined as energy output over the energy required to produce the fuel, will also be higher due to the avoidance of energy intensive downstream processing steps.

There are several disadvantages of using SVO as fuel. The first is that researchers have found that engine performance suffers, and that hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions increase relative to petroleum diesel. Particulate emissions were also observed to be higher with SVO. However, the same studies found that nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions were lower for SVO (Altin et al. 2001). On long-term tests, carbon deposits have been found in the combustion chamber, and sticky gum deposits have occurred in the fuel lines (Fort and Blumberg 1982). SVO also has a very high viscosity relative to most diesel fuels. This reduces its ability to flow, especially in cold weather. This characteristic may be compensated for by heating up the SVO, or by blending it with larger volumes of lower viscosity diesel fuels.

Conclusions

In order to understand the potential problems with biodiesel under cold weather conditions, it is important to understand that biodiesel is chemically different from petroleum or green diesel – and thus should not be expected to have the same chemical properties. Biodiesel is an ester, while petroleum and green diesel are hydrocarbons. The only reason it is called ‘diesel’ is that it can fuel a diesel engine. Likewise vegetable oil, butanol, and even ethanol blends could be called ‘diesels’, as each of these can be used to fuel a diesel engine.

Finally, it should also be noted that petroleum diesel is not immune from cold weather gelling. It is just that these problems don’t begin to occur until the temperatures are much lower than those at which biodiesel begins to gel. If extremely cold weather conditions are likely, then petroleum diesel is blended differently. More kerosene is put into the mixture, which is a lighter diesel (and has a shorter carbon chain length and is just a little heavier than gasoline) and is referred to as #1 diesel.

Footnotes

1. Lipids are oils obtained from recently living biomass. Examples are soybean oil, rapeseed oil, palm oil, and animal fats. Petroleum is obtained from ancient biomass and will be specifically referred to as ‘crude oil’ or the corresponding product ‘petroleum diesel.’

2. Methanol is usually produced from natural gas, although some is commercially produced from light petroleum products or from coal. Methanol therefore represents a significant – but often overlooked – fossil fuel input into the biodiesel process.

3. The cetane number is a measure of the ignition quality of diesel fuel based on ignition delay in a compression ignition engine. The ignition delay is the time between the start of the injection and the ignition. Higher cetane numbers mean shorter ignition delays and better ignition quality.

4. The cloud point is the temperature at which the fuel becomes cloudy due to the precipitation of wax. The pour point is the lowest temperature at which the fuel will still freely flow.

5. Hydrogen is produced almost exclusively from natural gas.

6. Companies actively involved in developing Fischer-Tropsch technology include Shell, operating a GTL facility in Bintulu, Malaysia since 1993; Sasol, with CTL and GTL experience in South Africa; and ConocoPhillips and Syntroleum, both with GTL demonstration plants in Oklahoma.

References

Altin, R., Cetinkaya S., & Yucesu, H.S. (2001). The potential of using vegetable oil fuels as fuel for Diesel engines. Energy Convers. Manage. 42, 529–538.

Arena, B.; Holmgren, J.; Marinangeli, R.; Marker, T.; McCall, M.; Petri, J.; Czernik, S.; Elliot, D.; & Shonnard, D. (2006, September). Opportunities for Biorenewables in Petroleum Refineries (Paper presented at the Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference, Instituto Braserileiro de Petroleo e Gas).

ConocoPhillips. (2007). ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods Announce Strategic Alliance To Produce Next Generation Renewable Diesel Fuel. Retrieved July 21, 2007 from the ConocoPhillips corporate web site: http://www.conocophillips.com/newsroom/news_releases/2007+News+Releases/041607.htm

EIA, Energy Information Administration. (2006). Annual Energy Outlook 2006. DOE/EIA-0383, 57-58.

EPA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2002). A Comprehensive Analysis of Biodiesel Impacts on Exhaust Emissions. EPA420-P-02-001.

Fort, E. F. & Blumberg, P. N. (1982). Performance and durability of a turbocharged diesel fueled with cottonseed oil blends. (Paper presented at the International Conference on Plant and Vegetable Oils as Fuel, ASAE).

Goering C.E., Schwab, A. Dougherty, M. Pryde, M. & Heakin, A. (1981). Fuel properties of eleven vegetable oils. (Paper presented at the American Society of Agricultural Engineers meeting, Chicago, IL, USA).

Hodge, C. (2006). Chemistry and Emissions of NExBTL. (Presented at the University of California, Davis). Retrieved July 21, 2007 from http://bioenergy.ucdavis.edu/materials/NExBTL%20Enviro%20Benefits%20of%20paraffins.pdf

Hemmerlein M., Korte V., & Richter HS. (1991). Performance, exhaust emission and durability of modern diesel engines running on rapeseed oil. SAE Paper 910848.

Kinast, J. NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2003). Production of Biodiesels from Multiple Feed-stocks and Properties of Biodiesels and Biodiesel/Diesel Blends. NREL/SR-510-31460.

Knothe, G. (2001). Historical perspectives on vegetable oil-based diesel fuels. INFORM 12 (11), 1103–7.

Ledford, H. (2006). Liquid fuel synthesis: Making it up as you go along. Nature 444, 677 – 678.

Neste Oil Corporation. (2007). Neste Oil inaugurates new diesel line and biodiesel plant at Porvoo. Retrieved July 21, 2007 from http://www.nesteoil.com/default.asp?path=1,41,540,1259,1260,7439,8400

NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2006). Biodiesel and Other Renewable Diesel Fuels, NREL/FS-510-40419 Sheehan, J. NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (1998). An Overview of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel Life Cycles, NREL/TP-580-24772.

Schlick M. L., Hanna, M. A., & Schinstock, J. L. (1988). Soybean and sunflower oil performance in diesel engine. ASAE 31 (5).

Van Gerpen, J. (1996). Cetane Number Testing of Biodiesel. (Paper presented at the Third Liquid Fuel Conference: Liquid Fuel and Industrial Products from Renewable Resources, St. Joseph, MI).

West, T. (2004). The Vegetable-Oil Alternative. [Electronic version]. Car and Driver. Retrieved June 28, 2007 from http://www.caranddriver.com/article.asp?section_id=4&article_id=7818

Book Chapter Outline

While I have posted extended excerpts from my book chapter, I covered quite a bit more material in there. Here is the full chapter outline:

Renewable Diesel by Robert Rapier

1. The Diesel Engine

2. Ecological Limits

3. Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)

4. Biodiesel

4.1.1. Definition/Production Process

4.1.2. Fuel Characteristics

4.1.3. Energy Return

4.1.4. Glycerin Byproduct

5. Green Diesel

5.1.1. Definition/Production

5.1.1.1. Hydroprocessing

5.1.1.2. BTL – Gasification/Fischer-Tropsch

6. Feedstocks

6.1.1. Soybean Oil

6.1.2. Palm Oil

6.1.3. Rapeseed Oil

6.1.4. Jatropha

6.1.5. Algae

6.1.6. Animal Fats

6.1.7. Waste Biomass

7. Conclusions

8. Conversion Factors and Calculations

8.1. Conversion Factors

8.2. Calculations

9. References

January 17, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, biomass gasification, btl, Choren, ConocoPhillips, green diesel, Neste, renewable diesel | 34 Comments

Renewable Diesel Primer

Given the recent news that biodiesel has caused buses in Minnesota to malfunction in cold weather, I thought this would be a good time to review the differences between diesel, biodiesel, and green diesel. In order to explain the key issues, I am going to excerpt from the chapter on renewable diesel that I wrote for Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems: Benefits and Risks.

First, what happened in Minnesota?



Biodiesel fuel woes close Bloomington schools

All schools in the Bloomington School District will be closed today after state-required biodiesel fuel clogged in school buses Thursday morning and left dozens of students stranded in frigid weather, the district said late Thursday.

Rick Kaufman, the district’s spokesman, said elements in the biodiesel fuel that turn into a gel-like substance at temperatures below 10 degrees clogged about a dozen district buses Thursday morning. Some buses weren’t able to operate at all and others experienced problems while picking up students, he said.

And in case you think this was an isolated incident:

The decision to close school today came after district officials consulted with several neighboring districts that were experiencing similar problems. Bloomington staffers tried to get a waiver to bypass the state requirement and use pure diesel fuel, but they weren’t able to do so in enough time, Kaufman said. They also decided against scheduling a two-hour delay because the temperatures weren’t expected to rise enough that the problem would be eliminated.

What is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is defined as the mono-alkyl ester product derived from lipid1 feedstock like SVO or animal fats (Knothe 2001). The chemical structure is distinctly different from petroleum diesel, and biodiesel has somewhat different physical and chemical properties from petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel is normally produced by reacting triglycerides (long-chain fatty acids contained in the lipids) with an alcohol in a base-catalyzed reaction (Sheehan 1998) as shown in Figure 1. Methanol, ethanol, or even longer chain alcohols may be used as the alcohol, although lower-cost and faster-reacting methanol2 is typically preferred. The primary products of the reaction are the alkyl ester (e.g., methyl ester if methanol is used) and glycerol. The key advantage over straight vegetable oil (SVO) is that the viscosity is greatly reduced, albeit at the cost of additional processing and a glycerol byproduct.

The key thing to note here is that biodiesel contains oxygen atoms (the ‘O’ in the biodiesel structure above), but petroleum diesel and green diesel do not. This leads to different physical properties for biodiesel.

Biodiesel Characteristics

Biodiesel is reportedly nontoxic and biodegradable (Sheehan et al. 1998). An EPA study published in 2002 showed that the impact of biodiesel on exhaust emissions was mostly favorable (EPA 2002). Compared to petroleum diesel, a pure blend of biodiesel was estimated to increase the emission of NOx by 10%, but reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and particulate matter by almost 50%. Hydrocarbon emissions from biodiesel were reduced by almost 70% relative to petroleum diesel. However, other researchers have reached different conclusions. While confirming the NOx reduction observed in the EPA studies, Altin et al. determined that both biodiesel and SVO increase CO emissions over petroleum diesel (Altin et al. 2001). They also determined that the energy content of biodiesel and SVO was about 10% lower than for petroleum diesel. This means that a larger volume of biodiesel consumption is required per distance traveled, increasing the total emissions over what a comparison of the exhaust concentrations would imply.

The natural cetane3 number for biodiesel in the 2002 EPA study was found to be higher than for petroleum diesel (55 vs. 44). Altin et al. again reported a different result, finding that in most cases the natural cetane numbers were lower for biodiesel than for petroleum diesel. These discrepancies in cetane results have been attributed to the differences in the quality of the oil feedstock, and to whether the biodiesel had been distilled (Van Gerpen 1996).

A major attraction of biodiesel is that it is easy to produce. An individual with a minimal amount of equipment or expertise can learn to produce biodiesel. With the exception of SVO, production of renewable diesel by hobbyists is limited to biodiesel because a much larger capital expenditure is required for other renewable diesel technologies.

Biodiesel does have characteristics that make it problematic in cold weather conditions. The cloud and pour points4 of biodiesel can be 20° C or higher than for petroleum diesel (Kinast 2003). This is a severe disadvantage for the usage of biodiesel in cold climates, and limits the blending percentage with petroleum diesel in cold weather.

Green Diesel

Definition

Another form of renewable diesel is ‘green diesel.’ Green diesel is chemically the same as petroleum diesel, but it is made from recently living biomass. Unlike biodiesel, which is an ester and has different chemical properties from petroleum diesel, green diesel is composed of long-chain hydrocarbons, and can be mixed with petroleum diesel in any proportion for use as transportation fuel. Green diesel technology is frequently referred to as second-generation renewable diesel technology.

There are two methods of making green diesel. One is to hydroprocess vegetable oil or animal fats. Hydroprocessing may occur in the same facilities used to process petroleum. The second method of making green diesel involves partially combusting a biomass source to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen – syngas – and then utilizing the Fischer-Tropsch reaction to produce complex hydrocarbons. This process is commonly called the biomass-to-liquids, or BTL process.

Hydroprocessing

Hydroprocessing is the process of reacting a feed stock with hydrogen under elevated temperature and pressure in order to change the chemical properties of the feed stock. The technology has long been used in the petroleum industry to ‘crack’, or convert very large organic molecules into smaller organic molecules, ranging from those suitable for liquid petroleum gas (LPG) applications through those suitable for use as distillate fuels.

In recent years, hydroprocessing technology has been used to convert lipid feed stocks into distillate fuels. The resulting products are a distillate fuel with properties very similar to petroleum diesel, and propane (Hodge 2006). The primary advantages over first-generation biodiesel technology are: 1). The cold weather properties are superior; 2). The propane byproduct is preferable over glycerol byproduct; 3). The heating content is greater; 4). The cetane number is greater; and 5). Capital costs and operating costs are lower (Arena et al. 2006).

A number of companies have announced renewable diesel projects based on hydroprocessing technology. In May 2007 Neste Oil Corporation in Finland inaugurated a plant that will produce 170,000 t/a of renewable diesel fuel from a mix of vegetable oil and animal fat (Neste 2007). Italy’s Eni has announced plans for a facility in Leghorn, Italy that will hydrotreat vegetable oil for supplying European markets. Brazil’s Petrobras is currently producing renewable diesel via their patented hydrocracking technology (NREL 2006). And in April 2007 ConocoPhillips, after testing their hydrocracking technology to make renewable diesel from rapeseed oil in Whitegate, Ireland, announced a partnership with Tyson Foods to convert waste animal fat into diesel (ConocoPhillips 2007).

Like biodiesel production, which normally utilizes fossil fuel-derived methanol, hydroprocessing requires fossil fuel-derived hydrogen5. No definitive life cycle analyses have been performed for diesel produced via hydroprocessing. Therefore, the energy return and overall environmental impact have yet to be quantified.

Biomass-to-Liquids

When an organic material is burned (e.g., natural gas, coal, biomass), it can be completely oxidized (gasified) to carbon dioxide and water, or it can be partially oxidized to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter partial oxidation (POX), or gasification reaction, is accomplished by restricting the amount of oxygen during the combustion. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called synthesis gas (syngas) and can be used as the starting material for a wide variety of organic compounds, including transportation fuels.

Syngas may be used to produce long-chain hydrocarbons via the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction. The FT reaction, invented by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s, was used by Germany during World War II to produce synthetic fuels for their war effort. The FT reaction has received a great deal of interest lately because of the potential for converting natural gas, coal, or biomass into liquid transportation fuels. These processes are respectively referred to as gas-to-liquids (GTL), coal-to-liquids (CTL), and biomass-to-liquids (BTL), and the resulting fuels are ‘synthetic fuels’ or ‘XTL fuels’. Of the XTL processes, BTL produces the only renewable fuel, as it utilizes recently anthropogenic (atmospheric) carbon.

Renewable diesel produced via BTL technology has one substantial advantage over biodiesel and hydrocracking technologies: Any source of biomass may be converted via BTL. Biodiesel and hydrocracking processes are limited to lipids. This restricts their application to a feedstock that is very small in the context of the world’s available biomass. BTL is the only renewable diesel technology with the potential for converting a wide range of waste biomass.

Like GTL and CTL, development of BTL is presently hampered by high capital costs. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2006, capital costs per daily barrel of production are $15,000-20,000 for a petroleum refinery, $20,000-$30,000 for an ethanol plant, $30,000 for GTL, $60,000 for CTL, and $120,000-$140,000 for BTL (EIA 2006).

While a great deal of research, development, and commercial experience has gone into FT technology in recent years6, biomass gasification biomass gasification technology is a relatively young field, which may partially explain the high capital costs. Nevertheless, the technology is progressing. Germany’s Choren is building a plant in Freiberg, Germany to produce 15,000 tons/yr of their SunDiesel® product starting in 2008 (Ledford 2006).

Straight Vegetable Oil

Unmodified vegetable-derived triglycerides, commonly known as vegetable oil, may also be used to fuel a diesel engine. Rudolf Diesel demonstrated the use of peanut oil as fuel for one of his diesel engines at the Paris Exposition in 1900 (Altin et al. 2001). Modern diesel engines are also capable of running on straight (unmodified) vegetable oil (SVO) or waste grease, with some loss of power over petroleum diesel (West 2004). Numerous engine performance and emission tests have been conducted with SVO derived from many different sources, either as a standalone fuel or as a mixture with petroleum diesel (Fort and Blumberg 1982, Schlick et al. 1988, Hemmerlein et al. 1991, Goering et al. 1982).

The advantage of SVO as fuel is that a minimal amount of processing is required, which lowers the production costs of the fuel. The energy return for SVO, defined as energy output over the energy required to produce the fuel, will also be higher due to the avoidance of energy intensive downstream processing steps.

There are several disadvantages of using SVO as fuel. The first is that researchers have found that engine performance suffers, and that hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions increase relative to petroleum diesel. Particulate emissions were also observed to be higher with SVO. However, the same studies found that nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions were lower for SVO (Altin et al. 2001). On long-term tests, carbon deposits have been found in the combustion chamber, and sticky gum deposits have occurred in the fuel lines (Fort and Blumberg 1982). SVO also has a very high viscosity relative to most diesel fuels. This reduces its ability to flow, especially in cold weather. This characteristic may be compensated for by heating up the SVO, or by blending it with larger volumes of lower viscosity diesel fuels.

Conclusions

In order to understand the potential problems with biodiesel under cold weather conditions, it is important to understand that biodiesel is chemically different from petroleum or green diesel – and thus should not be expected to have the same chemical properties. Biodiesel is an ester, while petroleum and green diesel are hydrocarbons. The only reason it is called ‘diesel’ is that it can fuel a diesel engine. Likewise vegetable oil, butanol, and even ethanol blends could be called ‘diesels’, as each of these can be used to fuel a diesel engine.

Finally, it should also be noted that petroleum diesel is not immune from cold weather gelling. It is just that these problems don’t begin to occur until the temperatures are much lower than those at which biodiesel begins to gel. If extremely cold weather conditions are likely, then petroleum diesel is blended differently. More kerosene is put into the mixture, which is a lighter diesel (and has a shorter carbon chain length and is just a little heavier than gasoline) and is referred to as #1 diesel.

Footnotes

1. Lipids are oils obtained from recently living biomass. Examples are soybean oil, rapeseed oil, palm oil, and animal fats. Petroleum is obtained from ancient biomass and will be specifically referred to as ‘crude oil’ or the corresponding product ‘petroleum diesel.’

2. Methanol is usually produced from natural gas, although some is commercially produced from light petroleum products or from coal. Methanol therefore represents a significant – but often overlooked – fossil fuel input into the biodiesel process.

3. The cetane number is a measure of the ignition quality of diesel fuel based on ignition delay in a compression ignition engine. The ignition delay is the time between the start of the injection and the ignition. Higher cetane numbers mean shorter ignition delays and better ignition quality.

4. The cloud point is the temperature at which the fuel becomes cloudy due to the precipitation of wax. The pour point is the lowest temperature at which the fuel will still freely flow.

5. Hydrogen is produced almost exclusively from natural gas.

6. Companies actively involved in developing Fischer-Tropsch technology include Shell, operating a GTL facility in Bintulu, Malaysia since 1993; Sasol, with CTL and GTL experience in South Africa; and ConocoPhillips and Syntroleum, both with GTL demonstration plants in Oklahoma.

References

Altin, R., Cetinkaya S., & Yucesu, H.S. (2001). The potential of using vegetable oil fuels as fuel for Diesel engines. Energy Convers. Manage. 42, 529–538.

Arena, B.; Holmgren, J.; Marinangeli, R.; Marker, T.; McCall, M.; Petri, J.; Czernik, S.; Elliot, D.; & Shonnard, D. (2006, September). Opportunities for Biorenewables in Petroleum Refineries (Paper presented at the Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference, Instituto Braserileiro de Petroleo e Gas).

ConocoPhillips. (2007). ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods Announce Strategic Alliance To Produce Next Generation Renewable Diesel Fuel. Retrieved July 21, 2007 from the ConocoPhillips corporate web site: http://www.conocophillips.com/newsroom/news_releases/2007+News+Releases/041607.htm

EIA, Energy Information Administration. (2006). Annual Energy Outlook 2006. DOE/EIA-0383, 57-58.

EPA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2002). A Comprehensive Analysis of Biodiesel Impacts on Exhaust Emissions. EPA420-P-02-001.

Fort, E. F. & Blumberg, P. N. (1982). Performance and durability of a turbocharged diesel fueled with cottonseed oil blends. (Paper presented at the International Conference on Plant and Vegetable Oils as Fuel, ASAE).

Goering C.E., Schwab, A. Dougherty, M. Pryde, M. & Heakin, A. (1981). Fuel properties of eleven vegetable oils. (Paper presented at the American Society of Agricultural Engineers meeting, Chicago, IL, USA).

Hodge, C. (2006). Chemistry and Emissions of NExBTL. (Presented at the University of California, Davis). Retrieved July 21, 2007 from http://bioenergy.ucdavis.edu/materials/NExBTL%20Enviro%20Benefits%20of%20paraffins.pdf

Hemmerlein M., Korte V., & Richter HS. (1991). Performance, exhaust emission and durability of modern diesel engines running on rapeseed oil. SAE Paper 910848.

Kinast, J. NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2003). Production of Biodiesels from Multiple Feed-stocks and Properties of Biodiesels and Biodiesel/Diesel Blends. NREL/SR-510-31460.

Knothe, G. (2001). Historical perspectives on vegetable oil-based diesel fuels. INFORM 12 (11), 1103–7.

Ledford, H. (2006). Liquid fuel synthesis: Making it up as you go along. Nature 444, 677 – 678.

Neste Oil Corporation. (2007). Neste Oil inaugurates new diesel line and biodiesel plant at Porvoo. Retrieved July 21, 2007 from http://www.nesteoil.com/default.asp?path=1,41,540,1259,1260,7439,8400

NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2006). Biodiesel and Other Renewable Diesel Fuels, NREL/FS-510-40419 Sheehan, J. NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (1998). An Overview of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel Life Cycles, NREL/TP-580-24772.

Schlick M. L., Hanna, M. A., & Schinstock, J. L. (1988). Soybean and sunflower oil performance in diesel engine. ASAE 31 (5).

Van Gerpen, J. (1996). Cetane Number Testing of Biodiesel. (Paper presented at the Third Liquid Fuel Conference: Liquid Fuel and Industrial Products from Renewable Resources, St. Joseph, MI).

West, T. (2004). The Vegetable-Oil Alternative. [Electronic version]. Car and Driver. Retrieved June 28, 2007 from http://www.caranddriver.com/article.asp?section_id=4&article_id=7818

Book Chapter Outline

While I have posted extended excerpts from my book chapter, I covered quite a bit more material in there. Here is the full chapter outline:

Renewable Diesel by Robert Rapier

1. The Diesel Engine

2. Ecological Limits

3. Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)

4. Biodiesel

4.1.1. Definition/Production Process

4.1.2. Fuel Characteristics

4.1.3. Energy Return

4.1.4. Glycerin Byproduct

5. Green Diesel

5.1.1. Definition/Production

5.1.1.1. Hydroprocessing

5.1.1.2. BTL – Gasification/Fischer-Tropsch

6. Feedstocks

6.1.1. Soybean Oil

6.1.2. Palm Oil

6.1.3. Rapeseed Oil

6.1.4. Jatropha

6.1.5. Algae

6.1.6. Animal Fats

6.1.7. Waste Biomass

7. Conclusions

8. Conversion Factors and Calculations

8.1. Conversion Factors

8.2. Calculations

9. References

January 17, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, biomass gasification, btl, Choren, ConocoPhillips, green diesel, Neste, renewable diesel | 34 Comments

Visit to New Choren BTL Plant

Figure 1. Choren BTL Production Process. (Source: Choren)

Introduction

I had to dig way back in my Gmail archives to figure out how it was that I first interacted with Choren. I had written several articles on biomass gasification in 2006, and when I announced that I would be moving to Scotland in early 2007, I received an e-mail from Dr. David Henson at Choren. David, at that time in Business Development at Choren and now the President of Choren USA, said he had been reading the blog, and he extended an invitation to visit the biomass-to-liquids (BTL) plant that Choren was building in Freiberg, Germany.

While I tentatively planned to visit several times while I was living in Scotland, it wasn’t until I recently moved to the Netherlands that I was actually able to make the visit. So here is some background information on BTL, followed by the trip report from my visit on April 18th, 2008 (the day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rob Routs from Shell visited for the inauguration of the facility).

BTL Background

I have written a number of articles on biomass gasification. However, let’s review. Biomass gasification takes biomass – ideally some sort of waste (and I understand that the term “waste” can be contentious) plant material – and partially burns the material with a controlled amount of oxygen to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen (synthesis gas, or syngas). One of the often overlooked benefits of the thermochemical approach over fermentation is that it can be used to produce chemicals, synthetic natural gas, or electricity – and from a wide range of feedstocks. There are many different variations of how the gasification process is done, and I will delve into the specifics of what Choren is doing in the next section.

Once you have produced syngas, you can go a number of different directions. You can burn the syngas to produce combined heat and power (this has some cleanliness and efficiency advantages over directly burning the biomass), produce methanol, ethanol (Range Fuels, Coskata, Syntec), mixed alcohols (Standard Alcohol, Power Ecalene Fuels), or hydrocarbons like diesel via the Fischer-Tropsch process (FT). This latter approach is what Choren is doing. The diesel they are producing is not biodiesel, but “green diesel” as I have described in this essay (scroll down to the “renewable diesel” section).

To my knowledge no other company in the world is as far along as Choren is in producing diesel (and maybe any liquid fuel) from gasifying biomass. Whereas Range Fuels is currently building a plant (and the schedule for that is already slipping), and Coskata is building a much smaller demonstration plant, Choren has been piloting their technology since 1998, and their new plant is mechanically complete. (Yet Choren – funded largely by private investors – has been pretty low-key, issuing a fraction of the press releases of some of the other biofuel companies).

Choren’s Process

The Choren process (incidentally, Choren’s name comes from Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and renewable) starts off by feeding biomass into a low-temperature gasifier (about 500 degrees C). The purpose of this step is to remove volatile components that will form tars at higher temperatures. What remains in the gasifier is called char, and is fed into the high temperature gasifier.

Figure 2. Choren Gasification Process. (Source: Choren)

The volatile components are mixed with oxygen and steam and also fed into the high temperature gasifier where temperatures are around 1400 degrees C. Under these conditions, the volatile components are broken down into syngas. The char is first pulverized, and then blown into the bottom of the high-temperature gasifier. The gas that exits the high-temperature gasifier is cooled, generating steam in the process that is used for power generation. The gas is then further treated (filtered and scrubbed), and it is ready for the Fischer-Tropsch process. You can see an animation of the entire process here.

The gasification section of the plant has been in operation since 2004, proving the scale up of the design. Since 2005, the FT section of the plant has been under construction and is now mechanically complete.

I won’t go into detail on the FT process. That technology has been around for almost 100 years, and is best-known as the process by which Germany produced their fuel from coal in World War II. Shell – a world leader in FT technology – provided the FT for the Choren plant. If you are interested in learning more about Shell FT, you can read here about the 15 years of experience they have gained from their gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Bintulu, Malaysia. (In addition to providing the FT technology, Shell is also an investor in Choren).

The Plant Tour

It was difficult to find the place, and I got to brush up on my German a couple of times when I had to ask for directions. But finally we (I was with a colleague) found the place and met up with David. He started off with an introductory slide show in which he walked us through the process. One of the more interesting comments he made was that the potential production of their second generation product (dubbed SunDiesel®) is up to 3 times the production of first generation fuels. A third party analysis of various biofuels may be found here, at the Fachagentur fur Nachwachsenden Rohstoffe (FNR). This agency is essentially the German Renewable Energy Department. Detailed information on various BTL platforms can be found here.

Figure 3. Choren BTL Plant in Freiberg, Germany. (Source: Choren)

The new Choren plant, utilizes forest residue and waste wood and will take in 68,000 tons of biomass per year and produce 18 million liters of diesel and 45 MW of power. One thing David mentioned that too many in this business don’t seem to get is “You know, biomass just isn’t very energy dense.” Therein lies the source of a lot of people’s misconceptions about rapidly scaling up biomass to replace petroleum. The energy density is problematic to say that least – and this poses big logistical challenges.

We finally got to walk around the plant, and they have done a really nice job. Everything was brand new, and the design was well-thought out and well-engineered. This was not like a typical dirty, old refinery or ethanol plant I have walked through before: This plant was a Cadillac. Of course it’s a Cadillac yet to be driven, but it sure was a pretty picture. Here are some facts about the plant, courtesy of Choren:

Maximum production: 18 million litres of BTL p.a (= the annual requirement of about 15,000 cars)
Biomass requirement: About 65,000 tonnes of wood (dry matter) p.a.
Raw materials: Forest residue and waste timber
Supply is secure for several years
Investment: About €100 million
Technical details: 31.5 km pipelines, 57 km electrical cables,
5,000 fittings, 5,000 measuring signals,
60 pumps, 181 containers and reactors
45 MWth output
Partners: SHELL, Daimler and Volkwagon
Synthesis/hydrocracking partner: Shell

Of particular interest was the material handling piece, as this is a major cost factor in driving up the capital costs in a BTL plant. We traced out how the material comes into the plant, and how the flows of volatiles and char come off of the low-temperature gasifier. The one piece we didn’t really look at was the FT back end, but then again I have seen those before.

So, where do things stand, and what’s next? From the Choren site:

Over 150 suppliers and around 50 assembly companies, including many from the region, were involved in the building of the Beta plant. CHOREN designed and manufactured 180 main components itself. Over 600 companies had been involved in the development of the Carbo-V® technology. By April 2008 around 800,000 man-hours have been utilized in development and assembly, and the overall number of employees almost doubled.

In the coming months 113 sub-systems in 26 main operating units will be started up individually then in sequence. Around 1,200 steps will be needed for the commissioning of these systems, which in themselves consist of several sub-steps. A highly-complex process, which, not unusually for plants of this complexity, will take 8 to 12 months. CHOREN will receive valuable support for this from Shell.

What’s the Catch?

Capital costs for BTL are still pretty high. On the other hand, Choren’s costs were sunk at a much lower capital cost. Oil at $120/bbl should help them out quite a bit – provided they have a pretty good contract on their biomass. I have no doubt that they will be successful from a technical standpoint. They have a lot of experience on the gasification piece, having piloted it since the 90’s. Shell has many years of experience on the back-end FT piece. No doubt there will be some unexpected bumps as they commission the plant; after all it is a first of its kind and speaking from experience issues will come up. But they have a lot of engineers on staff, and I don’t think they will find any show-stoppers.

There are those who insist that using biomass for fuels can never be sustainable – so there are likely to be critics on that front. However, I disagree with this. There are a number of biomass sources that are true waste, and biomass can be grown sustainably. On the other hand, it can also be used to strip-mine the soil. Like most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Biofuels have a part to play. But it would be foolish to try to completely replace petroleum with biofuels. That would require unsustainable practices. Incidentally, Choren has a life-cycle-analysis (LCA) on their process. Highlights can be seen here.

Short-term, I don’t know that this plant will be large enough to be profitable. I don’t think that’s the primary purpose; I think proving the technology for future plants is the purpose. In the longer-term, even though I am a fan of electrifying our transportation options, we will always have a demand for liquid fuel. Choren is trailblazing in an area that I believe will supply our liquid fuel in the future. The only question is, “How far off is that future?”

Additional Reading Material

Brochures and lectures for downloading may be found on Choren’s site here.

May 3, 2008 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, btl, Choren, green diesel | 41 Comments

Visit to New Choren BTL Plant

Figure 1. Choren BTL Production Process. (Source: Choren)

Introduction

I had to dig way back in my Gmail archives to figure out how it was that I first interacted with Choren. I had written several articles on biomass gasification in 2006, and when I announced that I would be moving to Scotland in early 2007, I received an e-mail from Dr. David Henson at Choren. David, at that time in Business Development at Choren and now the President of Choren USA, said he had been reading the blog, and he extended an invitation to visit the biomass-to-liquids (BTL) plant that Choren was building in Freiberg, Germany.

While I tentatively planned to visit several times while I was living in Scotland, it wasn’t until I recently moved to the Netherlands that I was actually able to make the visit. So here is some background information on BTL, followed by the trip report from my visit on April 18th, 2008 (the day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rob Routs from Shell visited for the inauguration of the facility).

BTL Background

I have written a number of articles on biomass gasification. However, let’s review. Biomass gasification takes biomass – ideally some sort of waste (and I understand that the term “waste” can be contentious) plant material – and partially burns the material with a controlled amount of oxygen to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen (synthesis gas, or syngas). One of the often overlooked benefits of the thermochemical approach over fermentation is that it can be used to produce chemicals, synthetic natural gas, or electricity – and from a wide range of feedstocks. There are many different variations of how the gasification process is done, and I will delve into the specifics of what Choren is doing in the next section.

Once you have produced syngas, you can go a number of different directions. You can burn the syngas to produce combined heat and power (this has some cleanliness and efficiency advantages over directly burning the biomass), produce methanol, ethanol (Range Fuels, Coskata, Syntec), mixed alcohols (Standard Alcohol, Power Ecalene Fuels), or hydrocarbons like diesel via the Fischer-Tropsch process (FT). This latter approach is what Choren is doing. The diesel they are producing is not biodiesel, but “green diesel” as I have described in this essay (scroll down to the “renewable diesel” section).

To my knowledge no other company in the world is as far along as Choren is in producing diesel (and maybe any liquid fuel) from gasifying biomass. Whereas Range Fuels is currently building a plant (and the schedule for that is already slipping), and Coskata is building a much smaller demonstration plant, Choren has been piloting their technology since 1998, and their new plant is mechanically complete. (Yet Choren – funded largely by private investors – has been pretty low-key, issuing a fraction of the press releases of some of the other biofuel companies).

Choren’s Process

The Choren process (incidentally, Choren’s name comes from Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and renewable) starts off by feeding biomass into a low-temperature gasifier (about 500 degrees C). The purpose of this step is to remove volatile components that will form tars at higher temperatures. What remains in the gasifier is called char, and is fed into the high temperature gasifier.

Figure 2. Choren Gasification Process. (Source: Choren)

The volatile components are mixed with oxygen and steam and also fed into the high temperature gasifier where temperatures are around 1400 degrees C. Under these conditions, the volatile components are broken down into syngas. The char is first pulverized, and then blown into the bottom of the high-temperature gasifier. The gas that exits the high-temperature gasifier is cooled, generating steam in the process that is used for power generation. The gas is then further treated (filtered and scrubbed), and it is ready for the Fischer-Tropsch process. You can see an animation of the entire process here.

The gasification section of the plant has been in operation since 2004, proving the scale up of the design. Since 2005, the FT section of the plant has been under construction and is now mechanically complete.

I won’t go into detail on the FT process. That technology has been around for almost 100 years, and is best-known as the process by which Germany produced their fuel from coal in World War II. Shell – a world leader in FT technology – provided the FT for the Choren plant. If you are interested in learning more about Shell FT, you can read here about the 15 years of experience they have gained from their gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Bintulu, Malaysia. (In addition to providing the FT technology, Shell is also an investor in Choren).

The Plant Tour

It was difficult to find the place, and I got to brush up on my German a couple of times when I had to ask for directions. But finally we (I was with a colleague) found the place and met up with David. He started off with an introductory slide show in which he walked us through the process. One of the more interesting comments he made was that the potential production of their second generation product (dubbed SunDiesel®) is up to 3 times the production of first generation fuels. A third party analysis of various biofuels may be found here, at the Fachagentur fur Nachwachsenden Rohstoffe (FNR). This agency is essentially the German Renewable Energy Department. Detailed information on various BTL platforms can be found here.

Figure 3. Choren BTL Plant in Freiberg, Germany. (Source: Choren)

The new Choren plant, utilizes forest residue and waste wood and will take in 68,000 tons of biomass per year and produce 18 million liters of diesel and 45 MW of power. One thing David mentioned that too many in this business don’t seem to get is “You know, biomass just isn’t very energy dense.” Therein lies the source of a lot of people’s misconceptions about rapidly scaling up biomass to replace petroleum. The energy density is problematic to say that least – and this poses big logistical challenges.

We finally got to walk around the plant, and they have done a really nice job. Everything was brand new, and the design was well-thought out and well-engineered. This was not like a typical dirty, old refinery or ethanol plant I have walked through before: This plant was a Cadillac. Of course it’s a Cadillac yet to be driven, but it sure was a pretty picture. Here are some facts about the plant, courtesy of Choren:

Maximum production: 18 million litres of BTL p.a (= the annual requirement of about 15,000 cars)
Biomass requirement: About 65,000 tonnes of wood (dry matter) p.a.
Raw materials: Forest residue and waste timber
Supply is secure for several years
Investment: About €100 million
Technical details: 31.5 km pipelines, 57 km electrical cables,
5,000 fittings, 5,000 measuring signals,
60 pumps, 181 containers and reactors
45 MWth output
Partners: SHELL, Daimler and Volkwagon
Synthesis/hydrocracking partner: Shell

Of particular interest was the material handling piece, as this is a major cost factor in driving up the capital costs in a BTL plant. We traced out how the material comes into the plant, and how the flows of volatiles and char come off of the low-temperature gasifier. The one piece we didn’t really look at was the FT back end, but then again I have seen those before.

So, where do things stand, and what’s next? From the Choren site:

Over 150 suppliers and around 50 assembly companies, including many from the region, were involved in the building of the Beta plant. CHOREN designed and manufactured 180 main components itself. Over 600 companies had been involved in the development of the Carbo-V® technology. By April 2008 around 800,000 man-hours have been utilized in development and assembly, and the overall number of employees almost doubled.

In the coming months 113 sub-systems in 26 main operating units will be started up individually then in sequence. Around 1,200 steps will be needed for the commissioning of these systems, which in themselves consist of several sub-steps. A highly-complex process, which, not unusually for plants of this complexity, will take 8 to 12 months. CHOREN will receive valuable support for this from Shell.

What’s the Catch?

Capital costs for BTL are still pretty high. On the other hand, Choren’s costs were sunk at a much lower capital cost. Oil at $120/bbl should help them out quite a bit – provided they have a pretty good contract on their biomass. I have no doubt that they will be successful from a technical standpoint. They have a lot of experience on the gasification piece, having piloted it since the 90’s. Shell has many years of experience on the back-end FT piece. No doubt there will be some unexpected bumps as they commission the plant; after all it is a first of its kind and speaking from experience issues will come up. But they have a lot of engineers on staff, and I don’t think they will find any show-stoppers.

There are those who insist that using biomass for fuels can never be sustainable – so there are likely to be critics on that front. However, I disagree with this. There are a number of biomass sources that are true waste, and biomass can be grown sustainably. On the other hand, it can also be used to strip-mine the soil. Like most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Biofuels have a part to play. But it would be foolish to try to completely replace petroleum with biofuels. That would require unsustainable practices. Incidentally, Choren has a life-cycle-analysis (LCA) on their process. Highlights can be seen here.

Short-term, I don’t know that this plant will be large enough to be profitable. I don’t think that’s the primary purpose; I think proving the technology for future plants is the purpose. In the longer-term, even though I am a fan of electrifying our transportation options, we will always have a demand for liquid fuel. Choren is trailblazing in an area that I believe will supply our liquid fuel in the future. The only question is, “How far off is that future?”

Additional Reading Material

Brochures and lectures for downloading may be found on Choren’s site here.

May 3, 2008 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, btl, Choren, green diesel | Comments Off on Visit to New Choren BTL Plant

Visit to New Choren BTL Plant

Figure 1. Choren BTL Production Process. (Source: Choren)

Introduction

I had to dig way back in my Gmail archives to figure out how it was that I first interacted with Choren. I had written several articles on biomass gasification in 2006, and when I announced that I would be moving to Scotland in early 2007, I received an e-mail from Dr. David Henson at Choren. David, at that time in Business Development at Choren and now the President of Choren USA, said he had been reading the blog, and he extended an invitation to visit the biomass-to-liquids (BTL) plant that Choren was building in Freiberg, Germany.

While I tentatively planned to visit several times while I was living in Scotland, it wasn’t until I recently moved to the Netherlands that I was actually able to make the visit. So here is some background information on BTL, followed by the trip report from my visit on April 18th, 2008 (the day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rob Routs from Shell visited for the inauguration of the facility).

BTL Background

I have written a number of articles on biomass gasification. However, let’s review. Biomass gasification takes biomass – ideally some sort of waste (and I understand that the term “waste” can be contentious) plant material – and partially burns the material with a controlled amount of oxygen to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen (synthesis gas, or syngas). One of the often overlooked benefits of the thermochemical approach over fermentation is that it can be used to produce chemicals, synthetic natural gas, or electricity – and from a wide range of feedstocks. There are many different variations of how the gasification process is done, and I will delve into the specifics of what Choren is doing in the next section.

Once you have produced syngas, you can go a number of different directions. You can burn the syngas to produce combined heat and power (this has some cleanliness and efficiency advantages over directly burning the biomass), produce methanol, ethanol (Range Fuels, Coskata, Syntec), mixed alcohols (Standard Alcohol, Power Ecalene Fuels), or hydrocarbons like diesel via the Fischer-Tropsch process (FT). This latter approach is what Choren is doing. The diesel they are producing is not biodiesel, but “green diesel” as I have described in this essay (scroll down to the “renewable diesel” section).

To my knowledge no other company in the world is as far along as Choren is in producing diesel (and maybe any liquid fuel) from gasifying biomass. Whereas Range Fuels is currently building a plant (and the schedule for that is already slipping), and Coskata is building a much smaller demonstration plant, Choren has been piloting their technology since 1998, and their new plant is mechanically complete. (Yet Choren – funded largely by private investors – has been pretty low-key, issuing a fraction of the press releases of some of the other biofuel companies).

Choren’s Process

The Choren process (incidentally, Choren’s name comes from Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and renewable) starts off by feeding biomass into a low-temperature gasifier (about 500 degrees C). The purpose of this step is to remove volatile components that will form tars at higher temperatures. What remains in the gasifier is called char, and is fed into the high temperature gasifier.

Figure 2. Choren Gasification Process. (Source: Choren)

The volatile components are mixed with oxygen and steam and also fed into the high temperature gasifier where temperatures are around 1400 degrees C. Under these conditions, the volatile components are broken down into syngas. The char is first pulverized, and then blown into the bottom of the high-temperature gasifier. The gas that exits the high-temperature gasifier is cooled, generating steam in the process that is used for power generation. The gas is then further treated (filtered and scrubbed), and it is ready for the Fischer-Tropsch process. You can see an animation of the entire process here.

The gasification section of the plant has been in operation since 2004, proving the scale up of the design. Since 2005, the FT section of the plant has been under construction and is now mechanically complete.

I won’t go into detail on the FT process. That technology has been around for almost 100 years, and is best-known as the process by which Germany produced their fuel from coal in World War II. Shell – a world leader in FT technology – provided the FT for the Choren plant. If you are interested in learning more about Shell FT, you can read here about the 15 years of experience they have gained from their gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Bintulu, Malaysia. (In addition to providing the FT technology, Shell is also an investor in Choren).

The Plant Tour

It was difficult to find the place, and I got to brush up on my German a couple of times when I had to ask for directions. But finally we (I was with a colleague) found the place and met up with David. He started off with an introductory slide show in which he walked us through the process. One of the more interesting comments he made was that the potential production of their second generation product (dubbed SunDiesel®) is up to 3 times the production of first generation fuels. A third party analysis of various biofuels may be found here, at the Fachagentur fur Nachwachsenden Rohstoffe (FNR). This agency is essentially the German Renewable Energy Department. Detailed information on various BTL platforms can be found here.

Figure 3. Choren BTL Plant in Freiberg, Germany. (Source: Choren)

The new Choren plant, utilizes forest residue and waste wood and will take in 68,000 tons of biomass per year and produce 18 million liters of diesel and 45 MW of power. One thing David mentioned that too many in this business don’t seem to get is “You know, biomass just isn’t very energy dense.” Therein lies the source of a lot of people’s misconceptions about rapidly scaling up biomass to replace petroleum. The energy density is problematic to say that least – and this poses big logistical challenges.

We finally got to walk around the plant, and they have done a really nice job. Everything was brand new, and the design was well-thought out and well-engineered. This was not like a typical dirty, old refinery or ethanol plant I have walked through before: This plant was a Cadillac. Of course it’s a Cadillac yet to be driven, but it sure was a pretty picture. Here are some facts about the plant, courtesy of Choren:

Maximum production: 18 million litres of BTL p.a (= the annual requirement of about 15,000 cars)
Biomass requirement: About 65,000 tonnes of wood (dry matter) p.a.
Raw materials: Forest residue and waste timber
Supply is secure for several years
Investment: About €100 million
Technical details: 31.5 km pipelines, 57 km electrical cables,
5,000 fittings, 5,000 measuring signals,
60 pumps, 181 containers and reactors
45 MWth output
Partners: SHELL, Daimler and Volkwagon
Synthesis/hydrocracking partner: Shell

Of particular interest was the material handling piece, as this is a major cost factor in driving up the capital costs in a BTL plant. We traced out how the material comes into the plant, and how the flows of volatiles and char come off of the low-temperature gasifier. The one piece we didn’t really look at was the FT back end, but then again I have seen those before.

So, where do things stand, and what’s next? From the Choren site:

Over 150 suppliers and around 50 assembly companies, including many from the region, were involved in the building of the Beta plant. CHOREN designed and manufactured 180 main components itself. Over 600 companies had been involved in the development of the Carbo-V® technology. By April 2008 around 800,000 man-hours have been utilized in development and assembly, and the overall number of employees almost doubled.

In the coming months 113 sub-systems in 26 main operating units will be started up individually then in sequence. Around 1,200 steps will be needed for the commissioning of these systems, which in themselves consist of several sub-steps. A highly-complex process, which, not unusually for plants of this complexity, will take 8 to 12 months. CHOREN will receive valuable support for this from Shell.

What’s the Catch?

Capital costs for BTL are still pretty high. On the other hand, Choren’s costs were sunk at a much lower capital cost. Oil at $120/bbl should help them out quite a bit – provided they have a pretty good contract on their biomass. I have no doubt that they will be successful from a technical standpoint. They have a lot of experience on the gasification piece, having piloted it since the 90’s. Shell has many years of experience on the back-end FT piece. No doubt there will be some unexpected bumps as they commission the plant; after all it is a first of its kind and speaking from experience issues will come up. But they have a lot of engineers on staff, and I don’t think they will find any show-stoppers.

There are those who insist that using biomass for fuels can never be sustainable – so there are likely to be critics on that front. However, I disagree with this. There are a number of biomass sources that are true waste, and biomass can be grown sustainably. On the other hand, it can also be used to strip-mine the soil. Like most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Biofuels have a part to play. But it would be foolish to try to completely replace petroleum with biofuels. That would require unsustainable practices. Incidentally, Choren has a life-cycle-analysis (LCA) on their process. Highlights can be seen here.

Short-term, I don’t know that this plant will be large enough to be profitable. I don’t think that’s the primary purpose; I think proving the technology for future plants is the purpose. In the longer-term, even though I am a fan of electrifying our transportation options, we will always have a demand for liquid fuel. Choren is trailblazing in an area that I believe will supply our liquid fuel in the future. The only question is, “How far off is that future?”

Additional Reading Material

Brochures and lectures for downloading may be found on Choren’s site here.

May 3, 2008 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, btl, Choren, green diesel | 41 Comments

Trip to Germany

Been in Germany today, visiting Choren. I will write something up on that trip soon. They have built a Cadillac of a BTL plant in Freiburg. Very impressive.

This was my first trip to Germany since I lived there from 1999 to 2001. Things have changed. Germany is covered up with wind turbines. They must have been installing those things like mad. I plan to do a little research and report on that. One thing I noticed: The turbines always turned clockwise. I had thought they were reversible.

I am traveling to the U.S. tomorrow. I am in Dallas on Saturday, Louisiana on Sunday, returning to Dallas on Monday afternoon, then off to Montana on Thursday (to see my kids for the first time since February 2nd). I return to the Netherlands on May 5th. My writing will be sporadic during this time.

April 18, 2008 Posted by | Choren, Germany, wind power | 9 Comments

Green Job Opportunities

Since I was a kid, I have always wanted to “make a difference” by making a significant contribution to society. I have a soft spot for families and especially for kids, and I really wanted to contribute toward the quality of life for those groups. A big concern is that quality of life for a large segment of the world’s population, never good to begin with, is poised for further deterioration as fossil fuel supplies deplete.

Quality of life to me starts with the basics: People have enough food and clean water, they have shelter, they live and work in safe conditions, and they have adequate access to affordable energy. At various stages of my life I have had involvement in projects in all of these areas, but most of my career has been focused on the energy portion – both in providing adequate supplies, and in urging conservation efforts to stretch our supplies.

The affordable energy piece is becoming more challenging, and we need more people working on this issue. As I transition into my new “green” job, I intend to step up my efforts on the sustainable energy front. There are a number of ways I can do this. First, my new job directly impacts on this. The technology we are engaged in – described briefly in the final section – promises significant environmental and sustainability benefits. But that isn’t the sole contribution I can make. I can also help bring promising sustainable technologies together with highly-motivated and talented people to enhance the odds of success. Up to this point I have done this by calling attention to technologies that I felt were promising, as well as by providing technical advice for some projects on an ad hoc basis.

With this essay, I am attempting to marry talent/passion with need by publicizing vacancies for some specific “green jobs.” I have had a series of conversations over the past year or so with Choren, a renewable diesel company that is now looking to scale up. Google contacted me last week to inform me of some of their vacancies in their new renewable energy efforts. Vinod Khosla has informed me several times that many of the companies he is involved with are looking for talent. And my new company is recruiting as well. I don’t think these jobs will be competing for exactly the same talent pool, because the job locations are geographically diverse. So, if you are looking for a green future and decent job stability (a recent story from Yahoo identified jobs in the energy and environmental sectors as “recession proof”) – here are some opportunities of which I am currently aware.

Choren

I have had a series of discussions over the past year or so with some of the Choren staff, including the president of Choren USA, Dr. David Henson. During the course of these discussions, I formed the opinion that Choren is ideally positioned for long term success in the renewable energy sphere. I think they are focusing on the right technology (biomass-to-liquids) for sustainable liquid fuel production, and they are on the leading edge of that technology. Dr. Henson will be hosting me at Choren’s new BTL plant in Germany in a month or so, and hope to make a report on the visit.

Their opportunities are described from their website as follows:

For the expansion to “world”-scale 600 MWth “Sigma” production facilities and the exploration of additional applications of CHOREN’s technologies we are now seeking highly motivated engineering specialists in the areas of Mechanical Engineering, Process/Chemical Engineering and Energy Technology, preferably with long or short-term experience in any of the fields of gasification, Fischer Tropsch Fuel Synthesis and/or in the Petrochemical Industry.

Choren is looking to fill the following positions in Houston:

Project Manager CHOREN USA, Job Description

Senior Process Engineer CHOREN USA, Job Description

Process Engineer CHOREN USA, Job Description

You can learn more information about the job opportunities at Choren by visiting their Employment Opportunities USA page.

Google

I have admired Google for a long time. They seem genuinely motivated by a desire to help humanity. You may also be aware that they have topped CNN Money’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For for the second year in a row.

Recently, they announced their intent to help power a clean energy revolution. I was aware of, and supportive of their efforts, and in a different time and place I might jump at the opportunity to work for them. Recently, they contacted me about just that, and I replied that while the timing is not right for me, I would help them publicize their vacancies.

Here is a short description of their vision, and what they are looking for:

Our thinking is that business as usual will not deliver low-cost, clean energy fast enough to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. We need a clean energy revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than carbon-intensive alternatives such as coal. Google is launching an R&D group to develop electricity from renewable energy sources at a cost less than coal.

We are looking for extraordinarily creative, motivated and talented engineers with significant experience in developing complex engineering designs to join our newly-created renewable energy group. This group is tasked with developing the most cost-effective and scalable forms of renewable energy generation, and these people will play a key role in developing new technologies and systems.

…if you know other outstanding engineers who may be interested, I encourage you to pass along this information as we are hiring for multiple positions. If you prefer that I reach out to them directly, I am more than happy to do so.

Their specific job opportunities at the moment, mostly at their Mountain View, California site:

Renewable Energy Engineer
Head of Renewable Energy Engineering
Director, Green Business Strategy & Operations
Director of Other
Investments Manager, Renewable Energy

They are also asking for people with the following experience:

If you have relevant expertise in other areas beyond these specific positions, please send an email with your resume to energy@google.com . Areas of interest include, but are not limited to:

• regulatory issues
• land acquisition and management
• construction
• energy project development
• mechanical and electrical engineering
• thermodynamics and control systems
• physics and chemistry
• materials science

Khosla Ventures

Vinod Khosla has built quite a renewable energy portfolio. See this PowerPoint presentation for his complete (or at least what’s public) renewable portfolio. Opportunities range from corn ethanol (which I don’t recommend) to cellulosic ethanol (some promising opportunities there) to advanced biofuels, electrical power, and even water desalinization. There are far too many companies to give details on all of the job vacancies, so I will just pick out one of the most interesting (to me), LS9. They describe themselves as the Renewable Petroleum Company™, and have this description on their website:

LS9 DesignerBiofuels™ products are customized to closely resemble petroleum fuels, engineered to be clean, renewable, domestically produced, and cost competitive with crude oil.

LS9 is the market leader for hydrocarbon biofuels and is rapidly commercializing and scaling up DesignerBiofuels™ products to meet market demands, including construction of a pilot facility leading to commercial availability. While initially focusing on fuels, LS9 will also develop sustainable industrial chemicals for specialty applications.

They are looking for the following for their South San Francisco location:

Current openings at LS9 are listed below. Please submit your resume stating qualifications and relevant experience to hr@ls9.com and include the job title in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you.

Bioprocess/Engineering

Director, Bioprocess Development
Scientist, Fermentation
Scientist, Fermentation
Associate Scientist, Fermentation
Research Associate/Senior Research Associate, Fermentation
Downstream Recovery Scientist

Chemistry/Biochemistry

Biochemist / Bio-organic Chemist Scientist
Research Associate/Senior Research Associate, Biochemistry

Instrumentation

Automation Laboratory Specialist

Metabolic Engineering

Scientist, Metabolic Engineering
Associate Scientist, Microbiology
Senior Research Associate, Microbiology

Corporate Development

Corporate Planning Analyst

What LS9 is attempting is Holy Grail stuff, but what they are trying to do should be technically feasible. However, it won’t be easy and it’s going to take some very talented people.

Don’t forget that this is only one of the Khosla Ventures’ companies. There are numerous job opportunities there if you dig a little.

Accsys Technologies

As I have mentioned previously, I left the oil industry on March 1, 2008 to become the Engineering Director for Accsys Technologies. While we are not creating energy as was the case with the previous companies I described, we are saving energy and attacking the problem of rainforest destruction. Here is a brief summary of what appealed to me about the company and my desire to make a difference:

Growing concerns about the destruction of tropical rainforests, a declining world stock of high quality timber and increasingly restrictive government regulations regarding the use of wood treated using toxic chemicals have created an exceptional market opportunity for the Company. Accsys believes that its technology will transform the use of wood in existing applications where durability and dimensional stability are valued, both halting the decline in the use of wood in outdoor applications and substituting plastics and metals.

Wood acetylation is a process which increases the amount of ‘acetyl’ molecules in wood, thereby changing its physical properties. The process protects wood from rot by making it “inedible” to most micro-organisms and insects, without – unlike conventional treatments – making it toxic.

I think you can see why that might appeal to me – this technology enables a sustainable replacement for tropical hardwoods, and can replace plastics and metals in some applications.

We are working on getting our job opportunities posted, but for now I will just mention a few. We are filling a wide variety of positions at our plant in Arnhem, in the Netherlands. If you are a citizen of an EU country, I believe you are eligible to work in the Netherlands. We should soon have a complete listing of jobs at our Titan Wood site (Titan Wood is a subsidiary of Accsys), but some of the current vacancies in Arnhem include Process Control Engineer, Project Manager, Supply Chain Manager, and process and mechanical engineers.

We are also filling jobs in our new Dallas office that are global in nature. For Dallas we are looking for a Global Process Improvement Manager (reports to me), Global Procurement Manager (reports to CEO), and a Panel Products Manager (reports to Panel Products Director). These positions require travel (got to break a few eggs to make a cake) to places like the Netherlands and China (where we are building a large facility in Nanjing). Required qualifications for these jobs include an engineering or chemistry degree, 7-10 years of relevant experience, and a preference for an MBA. Further, I want my Global Process Improvement Manager to share my passion for making the world a better place.

For now, you may send a cover letter and your resume or CV to JOBSUSA “at” accoya “dot” info (edited to slow the spambots) for positions in the U.S., or JOBSEurope “at” accoya “dot” info for positions in Europe. You may want to indicate that you are responding to this essay, and then the resume may be circulated to me.

Conclusion

Rest assured that I am not going to get in the habit of using my writing as a platform for promoting my new company. I do think it is directly topical to what I write about, and I plan to do one post in the future about the technology. However, most of my posts will be as they have been in the past: Covering energy, sustainability, and environmental responsibility. I do plan to shift more in the direction of “problem solving”, and this post was one aspect of that. It is an attempt to bring together talent and passion with a critical need, and it also will hopefully provide needed job stability in a fragile economy.

I am really interested in writing more about promising technologies, especially those that haven’t received much attention, but I first have to figure out a way to manage this. I tend to get about 19 bad or unworkable ideas e-mailed to me for every 1 that shows promise. I can’t afford the time at present to work my way through that sort of volume (and some of the proposals I see are very extensive), so I will continue to focus for now on those that are already on the radar.

February 28, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, Choren, Google, LS9, renewable diesel, Vinod Khosla | 180 Comments