Biodiesel Christmas Caroling: FFA La La

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Jim Lane

“On the way” forever, talked up by all, deployed by some – technologies that handle high free fatty acid feedstocks like used cooking oil are coming into their hey-day, via players like REG, Novozymes, Pacific Biodiesel, Blue Sun, Piedmont, COMAC and more.

Christmas come early for advanced biofuels?

One of the most alluring targets in advanced biofuels although cruelly mis-named is in the world of free fatty acids. Most of the oils currently used for biodiesel are sourced from soybeans, palm or rapeseed, and precisely because they contain less than 0.5% free fatty acid (FFA) content. Traditional biodiesel process designs have difficulty handling oils containing more than 0.5% FFA, meaning that, for many, waste oils with high FFAs have not been a viable feedstock option.

For example, used cooking oil, or “gutter oil” as it is known in China. At one time a few years back, restaurants would pay to have it picked up. These days, used cooking oil is sold, but at a considerable discount to virgin oils like soy or rapeseed and that spells opportunity for those who have the technology to address conversion of high free fatty acid feedstocks.

For some time, Renewable Energy Group (REGI) has been translating its technical abilities with FFAs into an advantaged position in feedstock costs, and that had fueled in many ways its acquisition and expansion program.

The race for FFAs heated up this week with news from Denmark of the launch of Novozymes (NVZMY) Eversa, the first commercially available enzymatic solution to make biodiesel from waste oils. The enzymatic process converts used cooking oil or other lower grade oils into biodiesel. The resulting biodiesel is sold to the same trade specification as biodiesel created through traditional chemical processing. Piedmont Biofuels and Blue Sun Biodiesel have been using a Novozymes process now, it’s poised for a break-out.

A solution that loves free fatty acids

“The idea of enzymatic biodiesel is not new, but the costs involved have been too high for commercial viability,” says Frederik Mejlby, marketing director for Novozymes’ Grain Processing division. “Eversa changes this and enables biodiesel producers to finally work with waste oils and enjoy feedstock flexibility to avoid the pinch of volatile pricing.” Eversa can work with a broad range of fatty materials as feedstock, but initial focus has been on used cooking oil, DDGS corn oil and fatty acid distillates. The enzymatic process eliminates the need for sodium methoxide, one of the most hazardous chemicals in traditional biodiesel plants. The radical reduction of harsh chemicals and by-products ensures safety for both personnel and the environment.

“Switching to Eversa can lead to a safer working environment for plant operators. The enzymatic process does not use high pressure or high temperature,” says Frederik Mejlby. “And when it comes to the actual enzymes, their organic nature and mild process conditions do not generate toxic components as in some chemical biodiesel processes.”

Better process economy

Making the change from a chemical catalyst to the enzymatic process requires retrofitting in existing plants. Biodiesel producers looking to utilize Eversa will therefore have to invest time and resources to make the switch to the enzymatic process. Novozymes pointed to Desmet Ballestra for the plant conversion tech. In spite what Desmet described as “the sizable task involved in modifying existing plants,” which are currently operating using the chemical conversion processes, they predict that enzymatic processing “will prove popular” with biodiesel producers.

“The enzymatic process is simple and does not need much pre-treatment. It is the best alternative for modifying existing plants to enable them to incorporate difficult-to-convert oils,” says Marc Kellens, Group Technical Director at Desmet Ballestra. “In conventional plants, 80 to 85% of the costs of biodiesel are linked to feedstock cost. So the more you are able to convert a cheaper feedstock into biodiesel, the more profitable the business is. The enzymatic process makes it possible to convert waste oils into biodiesel with relatively low capital expenditure by retrofitting a plant.”

Over at Pacific Biodiesel

The impact for biodiesel producers in being able to handle used cooking oil was demonstrated this week in Hawaii when Hawaiian Electric and Pacific Biodiesel Technologies signed a contract for the Maui-based biofuel company to supply biodiesel processed from waste cooking oil and other local feedstocks, primarily for use at the 110-megawatt Campbell Industrial Park generation facility with the capability for use at other O`ahu power plants as needed.

“The new technology installed at Big Island Biodiesel enables us to process the most degraded feedstock into the highest quality biodiesel available in the United States,” said Robert King, president of Pacific Biodiesel. “With this new contract, Hawaiian Electric will be purchasing approximately half our production volume, ensuring the continuous operation of the Kea`au facility. We are hopeful the PUC will agree that this contract for locally produced renewable fuel at a lower cost is a good thing for Hawai`i.

The two-year contract for a minimum of two million and up to three million gallons per year will go into effect in November 2015, subject to review and approval by the Hawai`i Public Utilities Commission. Pacific Biodiesel is currently under contract to supply biodiesel for the State of Hawai`i-owned Honolulu Airport Emergency Generation Facility scheduled to be in service by mid-2015. That 10-MW facility will provide electricity to Hawaiian Electric’s grid to supply all O`ahu customers under normal operations with the ability to isolate itself from the grid to power only the vital needs of the Honolulu International Airport in an emergency. The Campbell Industrial Park plant now uses biodiesel processed from waste fats and oils by Iowa-based Renewable Energy Group, Inc., a leading North American advanced biofuels producer, under a contract that will end in November 2015.

“This new contract accomplishes our goal of using locally produced biofuel to the greatest extent possible,” said Alan Oshima, Hawaiian Electric president and CEO. “Biodiesel for the Campbell Industrial Park plant will come from Pacific Biodiesel’s recently commissioned Hawai`i Island refinery at a lower price than we now pay for mainland supplied biodiesel.”

Recent research advances in used cooking oil

In the Emirates, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and Tadweer, the Center of Waste Management – Abu Dhabi have inked a two-year R&D pact to explore improvements in technologies for the conversion of waste cooking oil to biodiesel. The groups will be joined in the project by Australia’s Laboratory for Turbulence Research in Aerospace and Combustion, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of Sydney. Principal investigator for the two-year effort will be Dr. Isam Janajreh, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Head of the Waste to Energy (W2E) Laboratory at Masdar Institute.

Dr. Fred Moavenzadeh, President, Masdar Institute commented: “The research agreement with CWM illustrates the UAE’s commitment to facilitating the production of clean energy and minimization of waste. With the support of the country’s leadership, we will continue our contribution to the development of clean energy technologies and ensure faster adoption of sustainable measures. We are confident that the outcome of this collaboration
will encourage the community to support such green technologies.”

Boeing and COMAC

In China, Boeing and Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China opened a demonstration facility that will turn waste cooking oil, commonly referred to as “gutter oil” in China, into sustainable aviation biofuel. The two companies estimate that 500 million gallons (1.8 billion liters) of biofuel could be made annually in China from used cooking oil.

“Strong and continuing teamwork between Boeing and COMAC is helping our industry make progress on environmental challenges that no single company or country can solve alone,” said Ian Thomas, President, Boeing China. “By working together for mutual benefit, we’re finding innovative ways to support China’s aviation industry and build a sustainable future.”

Boeing and COMAC are sponsoring the facility, which is called the China-U.S. Aviation Biofuel Pilot Project. It will use a technology developed by Hangzhou Energy & Engineering Technology Co., Ltd. (HEET) to clean contaminants from waste oils and convert it into jet fuel at a rate of 160 gallons (650 liters) per day. The project’s goal is to assess the technical feasibility and cost of producing higher volumes of biofuel.

Biofuel produced by the China-U.S. Aviation Biofuel Pilot Project will meet international specifications approved in 2011 for jet fuel made from plant oils and animal fats. This type of biofuel has already been used for more than 1,600 commercial flights.

Deploying used cooking oil elsewhere for aviation fuels

Last month, SAS Airlines and Norwegian Air flew their first flights on biofuels, with a 48% blend with 52% fossil aviation fuel. The companies’ intention is to promote demand so fuel will be produced from Norwegian forests, rather than the used cooking oil feedstock used in the launch. Norwegian flew from Trondheim to Oslo while SAS flew from Bergen to Oslo.

Back in September, Finnair flew a A330 from Helsinki to New York partially on used cooking fuel-based jet fuel to highlight the opening of the UN Climate Summit. The fuel was supplied by SkyNRG Nordic, a JV between SkyNRG and Statoil Aviation. The airline says it is hoping to set up a biofuel fueling hub along with partners to help reduce the cost of aviation biofuels and strengthen the supply chain.

Earlier this year, the (Chinese) Civil Aviation Administration of China granted Sinopec Chinese Technical Standard Order Authorization (CTSOA) for aviation biofuels, certifying that the fuel has met all required industry standards. An April 2013 test flight using hydrotreated palm oil and recycled cooking oil feedstock on an Airbus 320 owned by China Eastern Airlines was the test case for the certification. Sinopec said it will now work on expanding the feedstocks it uses to produce aviation biofuel.

In June, UOP (a division of Honeywell (HON) announced that Honeywell Green Jet Fuel produced from its UOP Renewable Jet Fuel process will power 200 commercial flights on GOL Airlines during the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. The Honeywell Green Jet Fuel was made from inedible corn oil and used cooking oil. Each flight will use a blend of Honeywell Green Jet Fuel with petroleum-based jet fuel. UOP supplied nearly 92,000 liters of Honeywell Green Jet Fuel for the flights. Compared with petroleum-based jet fuel, this renewable fuel will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 185 metric tons of CO2 over the course of the event based on life cycle analysis.

Used cooking oil, recent adoption for ground transport

In October, Lootah Biofuels has signed an agreement with Emirates Transguard, a leading security provider, to provide biodiesel for a B5 blend for the fleet. Lootah uses old cooking oil as their feedstock. The agreement aims at taking up the initiative for greener fuel option as well as reduction of UCO waste, thereby creating value for the green economy and environment. The UAE is making strides in incorporating biodiesel into their public transit system, as well. The Roads and Transport Authority plans to expand to 60 biodiesel-based buses in the fleet in the next three years.

Last month, Greasecycle added the University of British Columbia to its list of used cooking oil suppliers for its biodiesel supply chain, but the university will also get to send its studentsalready working on biodieselto work with the company first hand on research projects. The company already collaborates with three other universities in the province as well as hotels, restaurants and 30 Burger Kings.

In September, Recoleo said that it will begin collecting used cooking oil from more than 800 McDonalds around the country for processing into biodiesel. Before this new contract, the company was already collecting 400,000 liters of used oil per month from 1,500 households and 3,500 businesses while selling biodiesel to 5,000 clients.

The Bottom Line

It may be second-hand, cooking oil that is, but recycling is hot allowing biofuels to serve as a backstop to the food industry and extending its sustainability and translating its waste into energy, rather than competing on the front end for virgin oil feedstocks. Virgin oils are going to dominate for a long time, but cooking oil and other high FFA feedstocks allow companies to increase production without necessarily driving up the feedstock costs and that’s good news for advanced biofuels and cooking, too.

Jim Lane is editor and publisher  of Biofuels Digest where this article was originally published. Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

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