Everything Under the Sun

Europe, South America and North America have set the stage for an explosion of biodiesel production in the next few years, but as other regions of the world hop aboard the biodiesel bandwagon, feedstock choices and their availability will become increasingly important.
By Ron Kotrba | February 01, 2006
Virtually any lipid-bearing material can be processed into biodiesel. What determines which feedstock makes the proverbial cut depends on many things: the cost, availability, proven technologies to carry out effective and efficient processing, capital costs to handle different quality feedstocks and more.

Within the confines of a single article, it's tough to even scratch the surfaces of a global feedstock assessment, which would include analyses of costs, pretreatments, resultant fuel properties and a plethora of other considerations. Instead, Biodiesel Magazine provides an abridged feedstock overview-and some "feed" for thought, including a look at promising alternatives to conventional oilseed crops and animal fats.

Feedstock overview: Resultant fuel properties

At the risk of oversimplifying, several generalities can be made about feedstocks, their costs and the subsequent properties of biodiesel fuels made from those respective feedstocks. Naturally, within generalities is always room for anomalies, and some of those will be covered here, too.

Voluminous varieties of feedstocks are available all around the world, but most biodiesel feedstocks can be divvied up into three main categories: vegetable oils, first-use animal fats and waste greases.

Vegetable oils derived from canola, sunflowers and soybeans are generally low in saturated fats. By knowing that alone, much can be presumed about the resulting vegetable oil-derived biodiesels.

Biodiesels made from most virgin vegetable oils, being generally low in saturated fats, are considered the easiest and least expensive to process, according to NREL publication titled Production of Biodiesels from Multiple Feedstocks and Properties of Biodiesels and Biodiesel/Diesel Blends. The report states, "These oils are available in a consistently high-quality form and are the easiest to process for making biodiesels."

Additionally, these biodiesels are more likely to have better cold flow characteristics- important to keep in mind, depending on what climate the biodiesel will be produced and used-due to the lack of saturated esters. Conversely, studies have repeatedly shown that, without modification, these biodiesels generally have lower cetane numbers directly attributable to their relatively low saturated fat content. This ultimately means their combustion temperatures are higher, thus producing more NOx. Also, according to the U.S. DOE's 2004 Biodiesel Handling and Use Guidelines-put out by the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office (EERE)-the more saturated fats in biodiesels, the more stable the fuels are likely to be. This means biodiesels made from lower saturated vegetable oils are more likely to become subject to oxidation quicker.

But not all virgin vegetable oils are low in saturated fats. According to the Harvard School of Public Health Lipid Laboratory, in conjunction with USDA studies, canola oil is one of the oils lowest in saturated fats, coming in at only 7 percent in relation to its overall fat (i.e., saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated). Safflower, sunflower, corn, olive, soybean, peanut, palm and coconut oils respectively weigh in at 9 percent, 10 percent, 13 percent, 13 percent, 16 percent, 17 percent, 50 percent and an astounding 87 percent.

With palm oil containing 50 percent saturated fat and coconut oil at 87 percent saturated fat, it's clear that these two oils do not fit the mold when discussing general properties of vegetable-oil-based biodiesels. Also, oilseed oil yields are another consideration. According to the United Soybean Board's recent analysis conducted by Promar International Ltd., canola, sunflower and palm oils are likely to fare well for biodiesel production in the future-in the expected event that vegetable oil prices rise-mainly due to their higher oil content compared to soybeans.

First-use animal fats ("virgin"), generally high in saturated fats, follow the same basic trends as vegetable oils. Being higher overall in saturated fats, animal-fat-derived biodiesels tend to cost a little less than virgin vegetable oils. They require further refining either before or after the transesterification process, but not nearly as much as required by waste greases. Also, animal fats tend to produce biodiesels with higher cetane numbers and, again on average, less NOx. But as the emissions/cold flow trade-off goes, the animal-fat-derived biodiesels have less desirable cold flow characteristics than most vegetable-oil-based biodiesels.

As with virgin vegetable oils, the variety of animal fats runs the gamut. There are edible and inedible tallows, grades of lards and various poultry fats.

Waste vegetable oils (yellow grease) and trap greases (brown greases) are the least expensive feedstocks available and require the most intensive processing due to high concentrations of free fatty acids that have become liberated at high cooking temperatures. According to NREL, yellow-grease-based biodiesels display characteristics of both vegetable-oil- and animal-fat-derived biodiesels, and therefore fall between the two in terms of fuel properties (e.g., cold flow, emissions, etc.).

Worldwide feedstock availability

According to a 2004 NREL report, Biomass Oil Analysis: Research Needs and Recommendations, the world's soy oil production increased 25 percent in a five-year period beginning in 1998 through to 2003, " from 25 million [metric tons] to over 30 million [metric tons], with most of that increase in Brazil and China. Production costs for Brazilian soybeans are 25 percent less than United States costs, and significant land and transportation improvements will continue to focus future growth in these sectors of the world." According to this publication, Latin America (Brazil and Argentina predominantly) leads the world in soy oil production, followed by the United States, Asia, the European Union (EU), Eastern Europe and others.

When feedstock availability and pricing are being looked at, it's imperative that several things be considered. For one, the biodiesel industry often competes with the food industry for feedstocks like soy oil, which is a real concern. This competition increases the cost and tightens availability. Livestock feed is another necessary consideration. For example, with a booming ethanol industry in the United States and beyond, distillers grains from starch-to-ethanol production processes offers even more feed product to the available livestock markets. Also, recent advances in technologies that extract the remaining corn oil from the distillers grains-offering multiple benefits to almost all parties involved-will help establish a lower-cost corn-oil market for biodiesel, which has been too expensive of a feedstock for biodiesel production in the past (see Talking Point, page 70). However, increased soybean oil demand would likely drive down the demand, and therefore, the price of soybean meal.

One more thing to think about is the amount of arable land needed to grow these oilseed crops. For instance, will Europe, a relatively small continent of people largely opposed to genetically modified (GM) agricultural products, have enough cropland to sustain a growing biofuels industry without draining product from the rapeseed food markets, or without compromising its widely-held position against GM crops?

According to Promar International, biodiesel's demand for vegetable oils will cause significant increases in global vegetable oil prices-more so than history has ever witnessed before. The analysis also shows that by 2012 or 2013, soybean production would likely be up by 3.8 million metric tons worldwide, while worldwide sunflower production would rise 1.7 million metric tons. Rapeseed production increases are expected to hit 1.4 million metric tons higher than current production by then, and palm oil production would rise 500,000 metric tons.

Along with those findings, Promar International predicts that Europe will become a net importer of soybean, rapeseed, sunflower and palm oils. Its analysis also indicates that palm oil production will likely skyrocket, especially in regions of the world like Malaysia, Indonesia, south Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Recent reports circulating through various media outlets point to the destructive nature of proliferating palm tree plantations in developing parts of the world. The fear is that, in order to supply the growing demand for high-oil-yielding crops for biodiesel production and other needs, native species in rainforests and other precious habitats are being lost to make way for the vast tracks of cultivated land needed to sustain these growingly popular plantations.

Fats and Greases

On a somewhat lighter note, NREL predicts slow growth in both animal fats and waste grease supplies over the next several years.

NREL found that, over the past five years, inedible tallow and grease supplies have increased at an average of only 0.4 percent per year. Also, the domestic demand has fallen at the rate of 0.5 percent per year. NREL predicts inedible tallow supplies could increase by 58 million gallons by 2016. The production of edible tallow has risen 1.4 percent per year, and domestic demand for edible tallow has fallen by 1.3 percent per year. By 2016, NREL predicts that edible tallow supplies will increase by 68 MMgy. However, lard supplies and domestic demand have both been falling over the past five years. Future lard increases are only expected to come in at approximately 7 MMgy.

Waste vegetable oils and brown greases are the least expensive feedstock for biodiesel production, but due to their often-high amounts of free fatty acids, they typically cost the most to process. However, there are a growing number of successful producers out there using proprietary technologies for these conversions, but finding out exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it is sometimes challenging.

"The supply of other greases and trap grease is assumed to remain constant over time, lacking any good information about these sources," NREL's Oil Analysis report states. "Thus, animal fats and greases will only grow by 133 million gallons by 2016 in the absence of any significant regulatory changes in these markets."

"Alternatives" and future research

These series of deliberations-the "food versus fuel" competition (with respect to vegetable oils and edible animal fats), resulting higher prices when competition for oils and fats increase, livestock market ramifications, slow projected growth in the animal fats markets, arable land needed to grow the oilseed crops and more-have spurred some companies to focus on researching alternative feedstocks for biodiesel production.

According to Graham Prince, head of corporate communications for London-based D1 Oils plc., these reasons have led his company to investigate jatropha as a viable alternative feedstock for biodiesel production.

Jatropha is originally native to Peru and Mexico, Prince tells Biodiesel Magazine. "The South American Indians used it as a medicinal plant," he says. "The seed and its oil are high in curcin, a poison." Because of the presence of this poison, jatropha is not a food crop for animals or humans.

D1 Oils came on the scene in the late 1990s, when the company was looking into feedstocks for biodiesel production. "It's better priced than canola or German rapeseed, or a lot of other high maintenance crops that require fertilizers and pesticides," Prince says. When D1 Oils "discovered" jatropha-on the "margin of research since the 1940s after Japan initiated it during [WWII]," Prince says-they hit the jackpot. "Jatropha has some key characteristics for biodiesel production," Prince says. "Jatropha has high oil yields-up to 40 percent in the right conditions-it's competitively priced, there's no need for arable land to grow it and it's not competing with food crops." According to Prince, Jatropha sounds like the ideal biodiesel feedstock.

D1 Oils believes it can produce jatropha oil at $275 per metric ton, compared to palm oil's current price of $450 per metric ton. "Palm oil's the one to beat," Prince says.

"The problem with German rapeseed is that the price is distorted by the demand from the food industry," he continues. "If you couple the fact that jatropha is not a food crop with the idea that jatropha thrives on marginal lands, we believe it has great potential."

D1 Oils is strategically building alliances with contracted jatropha farmers, third-party jatropha oil suppliers and others in joint ventures all over the globe-especially where land remediation is needed and growing conditions are less than suitable for growing food crops. D1 Oils is partnering with growers in Africa and Asia, where the company's modular "D1 20" processing units can be set up near oil-crushing facilities located on jatropha plantations. On par with the earlier mention of Promar International's belief that Europe will become a net vegetable oil importer in the not-so-distant future, Prince says D1 Oils plans to import its African-made jatropha-based biodiesel to the United Kingdom in just a couple years.

"There is still a lot to prove," Prince says. "But as the agronomy of the seeds progresses, our numbers will get better."

Unfortunately, jatropha trees take 3 to 5 years to mature after planting, while requiring radical pruning to maximize growth, according to Prince.

As D1 Oils concentrates its efforts on honing the growth of jatropha and developing its proprietary process technologies, GreenFuel Technologies Corp. is looking at exploiting algae for biodiesel production-in a novel and environmentally constructive way.

GreenFuel's "emissions-to-biofuels" approach to "growing" its own feedstock consists of installing its modular units in line with, for example, a power plant's effluent-streaming smokestack, in which algae are cultivated and thrive on consuming carbon dioxide while breaking down nitrogen oxide bonds.

"Currently, GreenFuel Technologies is deploying field trials in the United States and internationally to validate its emissions-to-biofuels process at customer facilities," says Xiaoxi Wu, GreenFuel's chief scientist. "As an indicator of future biodiesel production potential, current company projections indicate that the GreenFuel system could convert up to 40 percent of the carbon dioxide from a 1,000 megawatt power plant into 40 million gallons of biodiesel per year." According to Xiaoxi, this system is poised for wide-scale deployment by the end of this decade.

Processing biodiesel from algae isn't as complicated as it sounds either. "In the case of GreenFuel's system, we separate the algae from its growth medium, break the cell membranes and separate the oils from the other organic matter," Xiaoxi tells Biodiesel Magazine. "The oils can then be processed into biodiesel, and the remaining organic matter can be used for other valuable applications. This compares favorably against other biodiesel feedstocks, which can require several additional steps."

Although much of GreenFuel's current emissions-to-biofuels production process sounds futuristic already, the company is still looking at future R&D opportunities. "We are also working to augment [our] core process with additional features, which will make the system even more economically and operationally attractive over the coming years," Xiaoxi says.

The more traditional oilseed feedstocks and waste greases are also the subject of considerable research. Isolating desirable genetic traits in many oilseed crops to make seeds yield more oil, increase the bushels per acre, and help resist drought and other debilitating natural phenomena are just a few of the countless approaches being taken to enhance the availability of lipids for biodiesel production from these sources. Technologies are also being developed and refined, attempting to lower the costs associated with managing high free fatty acid feedstocks like waste greases, whether they are waste vegetable oils or trap greases.

Moreover, it's important not to forget researchers like Mike Haas of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, who developed and continues to sharpen in situ transesterification, a process technology that can potentially convert any lipid-bearing material to biodiesel, skipping the oil extraction phase altogether. Like any other feedstock coupled with a new technology though, the economics need to be proven before commercialization is feasible.
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