Hard work has made biodiesel a 'drop-in' fuel

By Ron Kotrba | June 15, 2010
Posted June 17, 2010

Steve Howell, technical director for the National Biodiesel Board and president of the Marc-IV consulting firm, said he was at the Advanced Biofuels Workshop's Drop-In Biofuels panel to present what "infrastructure-ready" biofuels means to him and the biodiesel community. He also gave an industry update and spoke to the sustainable nature of biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a great example of a sustainable fuel based on waste or excess materials. Since soybeans are grown for the meal, soy oil is a byproduct of the soy crushing industry. In more recent times, many plants have been built or retrofitted to utilize waste greases, used cooking oils and animal fats, or any combination thereof. "No one fries more food or grows more livestock for the waste," Howell said.

He mentioned the disadvantage from this model, however, is that the fuel properties of biodiesel made from these products are based on the properties of the feedstocks used-some of those properties are desirable, and others not so much.

Without disrupting markets or causing any real shift in current practices, Howell said about 1.75 billion gallons of biodiesel can be produced today from the available fats, oils and greases in the U.S.

Econometrically speaking, biodiesel still represents the best low-cost option of advanced biofuel production today. Biodiesel is "fully known, there are no mysteries," he said, as there are with many advanced biofuels under investigation.

Howell made some important points to consider in the discussion of infrastructure-compatible fuels. "There is a lot more to being infrastructure-ready than delivery," he said, such as having a fine-tuned fuel specification as the result of years of hard work and finesse-something Howell and the biodiesel industry know all too well. "It took eight years to get the first biodiesel specification," he said.

Also, several automakers have approved B20 for use in their vehicles, and virtually all have approved B5-one has to remember that vehicles are infrastructure too, and a tremendous amount of work has been done over the years to get biodiesel blends accepted by diesel engine and systems makers.

Oilheat burners are also infrastructure, and the oilheat industry has committed itself to dramatically increasing biodiesel use to clean up its fuel and bring it into the new era of clean energy.

The unknowns with many emerging advanced biofuels should be a real concern, and Howell asked the audience to consider such things as minor components in these new fuels, an area of seemingly little study but an important one nonetheless. The biodiesel spec has been adjusted over the years to address minor components in biodiesel, sterol glucosides, mono and diglycerides, sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, to name a few. Thus, "infrastructure" is more than just pipelines, terminals and service stations, Howell emphasized.

Howell also mentioned progress in advancing biodiesel as a pipelined fuel-and just because the biodiesel industry is relatively small compared to the petroleum or even the ethanol industries, pipelining biodiesel can save a significant amount of money for those obligated parties, the oil refiners, under the RFS2. Shipping biodiesel via the pipe can save between five and 25 cents a gallon in transportation costs, which can in total save obligated parties up to $50 million annually.

There is a tremendous amount of work being done on behalf of the pipeline steering committee, of which Howell is a big part. Much of that effort right now is focused on upping the fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) contamination spec in jet fuel from 5 parts per million to 100 parts per million. The airplane engine manufacturers are worried that FAME contamination in jet fuel can cause engine problems, something no one wants to risk. "I fly a lot so I don't want any airplanes to fall out of the sky," Howell said. There is ongoing work, 5,000 15-minute test cycles for instance, testing jet fuel with 400 ppm FAME contamination in jet engines. If four times the concentration of 100 ppm proves to be safe, then this will help push through a 100-ppm spec. Data from these test is expected this fall.

As biodiesel production volume grows in the U.S., Howell said it would behoove the industry to begin tailoring select oil and fat feedstocks with more desirable properties than the available feedstocks that are currently being used. "If we're going to grow 7 billion gallons, then let's do it right," he said.

Unlike blends of ethanol or perhaps even methyl ester biodiesel, the issue with many advanced biofuels under development isn't blend volumes or regulatory blend caps, said Seth Synder, head of the chemical and biotechnology section of Argonne National Laboratory's energy systems division. "Instead, we have to worry about sustainability," he told attendees.

He said work on Argonne's multifaceted project to develop drop-in biofuels is in its nascent stages, with monthly conference calls starting just this week. Immediate focus is determining the tools for the lab's giant research project-the integrated biofuel/engine design study-such as atomic layer deposition to help develop effective catalysts and bring them to scale.

"We're doing it all at once rather than saying, 'I have a bug, where do we go from here?'" Snyder said, adding that the lab just filed for a patent related to this project last week. Part of the work involves over-expressing production of molecule chains with five-carbon atoms. "We're not waiting for biology to scale up," Snyder said. Argonne researchers are looking at where is the sweet spot is for natural production of these desirable molecules, versus what makes a good fuel. "So we're bringing that together," he said.

The project covers a wide area of research, including fuel combustion in engines, life cycle analyses, processes, organism and catalyst developments, and more, spanning eight or nine programs.

Another panelist, Jeff McDaniel, director of business development for Velocys Inc.-part of the Oxford Catalyst Group-presented on microchannel technology for production of cellulosic diesel. "The Fischer Tropsch process needs to change to enable biomass-to-liquids," McDaniel said, adding that microchannel technology enables the successful FT conversion of biomass to fuels.

The technology utilizes a multitude of small-diameter reactor tubes that improve the heat/mass transfer to better control the reaction, and increase the process speed.

The gasification process yields 72 percent conversion to carbon monoxide, and minimizes selectivity to methane. Velocys has three demonstration commitments, one in Austria, another in Brazil and a third project at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
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