The Road to Feedstock Flexibility

Imerys personnel have spent much of 2018 talking about new and diverse feedstocks for biodiesel production, and how to help biodiesel manufacturers incorporate them into their existing processes. Here is an overview of that discussion.
By Chris Abrams | October 22, 2018

This has been a banner year for the biodiesel market, and it looks like 2018 will make a strong close as we enter the fourth quarter. Producers are reporting operating at maximum rates for most of the year. Industry experts estimate that the market will be robust for some time to come. When I talk to biodiesel plant and operations employees, the biggest initiatives and concerns they mention are expanding plant capacity, the potential tightening of fuel quality standards, and incorporating new, lower-quality feedstocks into their processes. All of these are exciting developments for producers and for our industry. At Imerys we spend a lot of time studying the biodiesel and oleo-fuel markets, and the direction they are going. This is to help ensure we can meet the market’s needs today, and more importantly to meet its future needs. We at Imerys have spent most of 2018 talking about the last point—new and diverse feedstocks—and how to assist biodiesel manufacturers in incorporating them into their existing processes. We call this initiative “feedstock flexibility.” Some call it “feedstock neutrality.” Whatever you want to call it, we all need to plan now so we are prepared for changes the biodiesel industry will soon undergo as markets for renewable fuels change and expand.

What do we expect to see in the near future, and how will it affect biodiesel operations? One big change related to feedstocks is that availability and supply will continue to tighten. What is causing this tightening? The primary reason is the previously mentioned strong biodiesel market in which producers are growing by expansion and acquisition. On the horizon, we see growing demand for lower-grade feedstocks due to the emergence of renewable diesel. We have already seen biodiesel producers,  such as REG and World Energy, making moves to build and acquire renewable diesel facilities. There are standalone players, like Neste, and others throughout the world expanding production and making key strategic purchases in the same space. For instance, Neste just made a key strategic move to acquire Netherlands-based animal fats trader IH Demeter B.V. The big shift will come once major petroleum refiners ramp up redesigned, existing assets with renewable fuels production units. Only time will tell when that will be. Throughout the summer, financial news agencies continuously reported on joint ventures and investments by most of the major oil producers in this space. Their demand will put massive pressure on the feedstock supply chain.

What I am saying is not new, nor earth-shattering, but it is necessary to clarify how we as an industry prepare and harden our resources to meet the market in the near future. First, we need to ask whether we care what feedstocks are used. Not necessarily. Biodiesel can be made, to some degree, from any triacylglycerol source.  Feedstocks can affect biodiesel attributes such as cetane number, lubricity, cloud point and carbon intensity. Carbon intensity will continue to become a bigger piece of the equation as governments and end users start pushing for these requirements. For most at the plant level, the question is how a diversified feedstock supply will affect my operations and profits.

The biodiesel industry wants to achieve predictable and consistent supply and pricing, biodiesel fuel that meets requirements for the markets you service or desire to service (cold flow properties, carbon intensity, etc.), and predictable production operations and finished product quality. With those broad goals defined, how do you approach a feedstock-flexibility program to allow expansion of your current mixed-feedstock program? It has to start with pretreatment.

Preparing feedstock for conversion is essential to downstream processes. Eliminating key contaminants improves conversion and separation, and limits production variations. Pretreatment is often performed using a suitable separation process, typically either a mixture of acid/base washing (“wet wash”) or via an adsorbent “dry wash.” While both processes are functional for current feedstocks, lower-quality feedstocks are placing higher loadings on these processes.

In addition, refiners are now becoming more conscious of their water-consumption footprint. Water is becoming a scarcer commodity, and post-usage water treatment costlier. Imerys is now being approached by producers wanting to optimize their wet and dry wash for just these reasons. The market desires to reduce total consumables and everyone wants to become better stewards of the environment.

The challenges faced with lower-quality feedstocks can be addressed by using higher adsorbent application rates and chemicals dosing, but this typically has a cost—not just in opex, but more importantly in reduced capacity and yields at a time when the market is looking to increase capacity. This is the challenge on which Imerys has been working the past two years—improved adsorbent functionality to allow more feedstock flexibility, but without the negative impact on capacity or consumption. We aim to build a tool kit for end users to be able to flexibly source and convert the best available feedstock for their production.

Author: Chris Abrams
Commercial Development Manager, Imerys Filtration

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