by Tina Olivero

    As the price of oil goes down the possibilities for new energy go up!

    Dependence on oil imports and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions makes new energy alternatives an attractive proposition. With a range of new energy solutions from solar, wind, hydro and more, a less known option is favored to be the next rising star. Biomass.

    Biomass an alternative energy solution that can be derived from domestic renewable feedstock such as crop and forest residues, dedicated energy crops, and plant oils.  But what are the technical and financial considerations of using biomass-based diesel and jet fuel?  To answer that question, new energy enthusiasts have to consider data on production, capacity, cost, market demand, and feedstock availability in the total equation of market acceptance and profitability.

    NREL is a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy

    Efficiency & Renewable Energy, operated by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC. According to the NREL, Dec. 2013 study eight key considerations which still hold true today when looking at the feasibility of producing and using Biomass.  The study entitled, “Feasibility of Producing and Using Biomass-Based Diesel and Jet Fuel in the United States by A. Milbrandt, C. Kinchin, and R. McCormick summarizes their key findings as follows:

    1. It is technically feasible to produce biomass-derived diesel and jet fuel substitutes in the United States. Many conversion technology options exist. Some are commercially available or in demonstration stage; others are still in the research and development phase.

    2. Biodiesel, consisting of fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) produced from lipids (fats, oils, and greases), is currently the predominant form of biomass-based diesel. Production reached a record 1.1 billion gallons in 2011 and remained at that level in 2012. It is expected to be higher in 2013. Biodiesel blends cannot yet be considered fully “drop-in” fuels because they cannot be transported in all petroleum product pipelines. For pipelines that transport jet fuel, there is a concern that the jet fuel will be contaminated with biodiesel, making it unsuitable for use. Ongoing research aims to determine what, if any, level of FAME can be tolerated in jet fuel.

    3. In comparison, the current U.S. renewable diesel and jet fuel production capacity is small, about 225 million gallons per year. These fuels can be produced from various biomass resources and through several different approaches which all target hydrocarbon products that are similar to petroleum fuels in chemical makeup, and therefore may be considered “drop-in” fuels. It is anticipated that, as “drop-in” fuels, they can be blended with petroleum diesel/jet fuel at high levels, or possibly used in neat form.

    • Renewable diesel is produced at commercial scale primarily by hydroisomerization of lipid feedstock. Currently, there are two commercial facilities utilizing this process: Dynamic Fuels, a joint venture between Syntroleum Corporation and Tyson Foods,
      (Geismar, Louisiana) and Diamond Green Diesel, a joint venture between Valero subsidiary Diamond Alternative Energy LLC and Darling International Inc. (Norco, Louisiana).
    • A number of processes are under development for production of renewable diesel from biomass-derived sugars (corn, sugarcane, and sorghum, as well as sugars from thermochemical or biochemical depolymerization of cellulose and hemicellulose).
    • Processes are also being developed for direct conversion of lignocellulosic biomass by fast pyrolysis, gasification, and other thermochemical means. The first commercial plant is operated by KiOR in Columbus, Mississippi and became operational in early 2013.

    4. The costs for producing renewable diesel and jet fuel are not well known and involve a high degree of uncertainty. The process economics for these fuels is highly dependent upon the cost of the feedstock, similar to biodiesel. Additionally, variables such as plant size and coproduct credits can have a significant impact on the overall production cost. Hydroisomerization of lipids is performed commercially by Dynamic Fuels and Diamond Green Diesel and internationally by Neste Oil. The KiOR technology, utilizing pyrolysis, is at an initial commercial scale. Other technology routes are not yet commercial and display a wide range of estimated costs in public sources. As these technology pathways mature and become more widespread, more specific information regarding their economics will be available, which will enable a more detailed analysis and performance comparison.

    5. From a feedstock perspective, enough lignocellulosic material is projected to be available in support of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) mandate of 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels. Crop and forest residues alone could yield about 8-24 billion gallons of biomassbased diesel/jet fuel in 2022 (assuming a conversion via fast pyrolysis).This potential could be larger if the conversion technologies achieve higher yields and if additional feedstock, such as dedicated energy crops, become available. However, there will be competition for lignocellulosic feedstock with the ethanol industry and renewable gasoline producers to meet the RFS mandate. Thus, it is unclear what share the renewable diesel/jet fuel would have in the total biofuels contribution. Ultimately, it will depend on the rate of commercialization of these technologies, selling price, and the transportation market demands.

    6. Based on current statistics, and proven by the biodiesel industry, there is enough lipid feedstock to support the production of 1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel mandated by the RFS. Today, roughly half of the biodiesel in the United States is produced from soybeans. The remaining portion consists of animal fat, used cooking oil, canola, and some other minor feedstocks. While soybean production is projected to grow in coming years, the biodiesel industry hopes to achieve higher output through advanced technologies for increasing oil supply and production of new feedstock. If algal oil becomes commercially available, as projected within the next 5-10 years, it would greatly benefit both biodiesel and renewable diesel/jet fuel industries. Given the right resources, algal oil productivity can be quite high. Algae are a potential aquatic oil crop, but may also yield carbohydrates that can be converted to sugar.

    7. Demand for diesel and jet fuel in the United States is projected to grow. As easily recoverable crude oil resources are diminishing and as their prices rise, more substitutes are expected to enter the market.

    • Among the diesel consumers in the country, freight trucking has the largest share. The number of light-duty vehicles using diesel is projected to increase, the rate of which will depend on the market penetration of other alternatives such as hybrid and electric vehicles.
    • Jet fuel is forming as a large and profitable market for the renewable fuels industry. Success in this area could stimulate a significant increase in the production of biofuels and associated feedstock. It is expected that jet fuel consumption by commercial carriers will continue to grow over the next years, whereas jet fuel consumption by the military will remain flat.

    8. For biomass-based diesel and jet fuel to be successful among the trucking and aviation companies, they must be cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. It is uncertain what the future holds for these substitutes, but it is expected that the next several years, as more facilities come online, will answer many questions about the economic viability of these technologies. Much will depend on the rate of recovery of U.S. and world economies, oil prices, carbon market, and political climate.

    To review the full study: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy14osti/58015.pdf

    ExxonMobil and Biomass

    Focused on the potential of Biomass as a new energy solution for the future, ExxonMobil and University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) have entered into an agreement to research the conversion of Biomass into transportation fuel. The two-year agreement to study chemistry of converting biomass to diesel and jet fuel is part of effort to identify meaningful and scalable solutions to meet increasing global energy demand.

    ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, uses technology and innovation to help meet the world’s growing energy needs. ExxonMobil holds an industry-leading inventory of resources and is one of the world’s largest integrated refiners, marketers of petroleum products and chemical manufacturers.  These day’s ExxonMobil is heavily invested in early-stage innovative projects through partnerships with leading universities around the world. ExxonMobil has established partnerships with MIT, Princeton, Michigan State, Northwestern, Stanford and Iowa State University, and UW-Madison, to support new energy solutions coming into the new energy mix.

    The UW-Madison College of Engineering is among the most innovative and consistently highly ranked U.S. colleges of engineering. At UW-Madison there are 40 research centers and more than 15 research consortia making it a mega research facility. The College is renowned for leading-edge research and is recognized for its ability to transfer technological advances into real-world applications through patents, licenses, spin-off and start-up companies, and industry partnerships. UW-Madison is well known for its expertise in biomass conversion and this new Biomass project leverages the University’s expertise alongside the resources and technology development of ExxonMobil. 

    According to George Huber, the Harvey D. Spangler professor of chemical and biological engineering at UW-Madison, he is, “working closely with ExxonMobil scientists to build a stronger understanding of the basic chemical transformations that occur during biomass conversion into diesel and jet fuels and is a catalytic process that looks at what’s possible, and what’s not possible. Researchers have used expensive precious metal catalysts such as platinum for biomass conversion.”

    “This agreement continues ExxonMobil’s commitment to partner with top universities and scientists to research and discover next-generation energy solutions,” says Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Company. “We are continuously investigating new ideas and technologies and we are looking forward to working with the team at the University of Wisconsin on this project.”

    For more information, visit www.exxonmobil.com

    Did you enjoy this article?

    Nominate a Student for our Student Icon segment!

    OGM - Our Great Minds

    * = required field

    We respect your privacy and will never share your information with third parties.