UOP's New Technology for Green Diesel and Green Gasoline

A few weeks ago we ran a piece entitled “Strangled in the Cradle” alluding to some new technology developed by UOP (Universal Oil Products), technology which some in the biodiesel industry see as a mortal threat to their business. At the time a call to UOP’s public relations bureau went unanswered, and so the story went online without the all important opposing perspective. Since then UOP has proven much more responsive and granted us an interview with the individual heading the company’s renewable fuels program, one Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable energy chemicals.

By all means, read the first article before plunging into this one. But if you are excessively impatient, here’s a brief summary of UOP’s innovations in terms of renewable fuels.

Essentially what UOP is proposing is to transform conventional biodiesel, on the one hand, and pyrolysis oil, on the other, into petroleum analogs—synfuels that are indistinguishable from those derived from coal or natural gas. Pyrolysis oil, incidentally, is a liquid fuel produced by vaporizing biomass—generally wood waste—under high heat and pressure and then allowing the vapors to condense.

The respective processes for converting biodiesel and pyrolysis oil into synfuels are different, but both involve relatively large quantities of hydrogen and both can be performed within traditional oil refineries after certain modifications and additions have been made.

The biodiesel synfuel process is evidently much closer to commercialization, and, according to Holmgren a plant is under construction in Italy. UOP itself is making the technology available under a licensing agreement, its usual practice in regard to its intellectual property. The pyrolysis oil process is still experimental, and Holmgren notes, “we don’t expect commercialization until the next decade.”

Obviously, further processing of biodiesel will add to the already considerable cost of production, leading one to the question of why bother?

“Because,” says Holmgren, “the object is to establish a large infrastructure for biomass based fuels quickly. By using as much of the existing infrastructure for petroleum as possible that process is facilitated. You can’t transport biodiesel in oil pipelines, you can’t store it in the same kind of containers, and it may not be compatible with all engines. With a synfuel derived from biodiesel, you don’t have those problems. It’s fully fungible in a way that biodiesel isn’t.”

Makes sense to us, but what about the feedstock problem, the fact that most of the money going into biodiesel production goes to purchase expensive soy oil?

“That’s a problem for which there is no perfect solution today,” admits Holmgren. “We’ve looked at fuel crops like jatropha, but all such substitutes are at an early stage of development, and you don’t have the same maturity of harvesting techniques that you have with more mature crops like soy. It’s gonna take time. Right now we’re five to ten years away from truly sustainable, economically viable biofuel production.”

Of course, that begs the more fundamental question of why UOP, the oil companies’ oil company, is getting involved in biofuels in the first place, and in due course I asked that very question of Ms. Holmgren.

“It has to do with our long term business perspective,” she answered. “I see demand for motor fuels rising to much higher levels in the future, and I don’t see that demand being met entirely by conventional petroleum. Other things have to be added to the mix—heavy oils, shale, alcohols, coal based synfuels, and certainly biofuels. At this point I think it’s a mistake to bet the future on a single liquid fuel or a single production technology. There will be winners and losers, but it’s too soon to predict who they will be. UOP will play in several markets.”

I returned for a moment to a candidate which most people see as a very dark horse, namely pyrolysis oil, the intermediate feedstock for one type of UOP synfuel. What were the long term prospects for that technology?

“Actually very good,” Holmgren answered. “Pyrolysis reactors are further along in development than are gasifiers and efficiencies are good. Our preliminary calculations are that synfuel made from wood waste can compete with refined petroleum products made from crude oil priced at $50 per barrel or above.”

There are some independent studies of pyrolysis oil that suggest similar economics, leading one to ask why pyrolysis remains almost invisible in the alternative fuels space. My belief is that the industry has been stymied by the lack of application of unrefined pyrolysis oil to most transportation markets and the only very recent appearance of promising refining technologies.

Of Apes and Alt Fuels

On a related topic we note an article published in The Observer stating that the growth in oil palm plantations serving the biodiesel industry will contribute to the probable extinction of the orangutan, the elusive red anthropoid ape found in various restricted habitats in Southeast Asia. In truth the prospects of this fascinating and repellant creature have been dismal for years, and it is not difficult to believe that further degradation of the ape’s environment will result in its utter disappearance in the wild.

To say that this would be unfortunate would be an understatement. The oranangutan is not quite so closely related to man as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, but it is still close kin, and its extinction would forever close a portal into our own evolutionary past. The orangutan, which is almost wholly arboreal and on that account inaccessible, has not had its Jane Goodall to chronicle its ways. Relatively little is known of its behavior except that it is said to be almost entirely solitary, an utter anomaly among higher primates. Orangutans compare favorably with chimpanzees in cognitive abilities, and no other hyper-intelligent animal is solitary. Humans, elephants, dolphins, African apes, and gray parrots are all social animals. The divergence of the orangutan in this regard, I submit, is worthy of profound study and of determined efforts to perpetuate this creature’s existence within its native habitat.

On a different topic, I will note that the extinction of the orangutan, or at best, the drastic reduction of its already depleted numbers, is apt to be only one adverse effect of expanding an oil palm monoculture throughout the region. Such monocultures are inevitably destructive of both wilderness areas and stable subsistence agriculture. They have of course been associated with all manner of cash crops from coffee beans to fast growing tropical hardwoods to the coca plant and the opium poppy. Even when the crop is very high value, as is the case with illicit drugs, its production almost never enriches the growing region in any real sense. A few satraps seem to accumulate most of the profits while the cultivators live on the offscourings and end up paying for expensive imported foodstuffs after seeing their own farm plots displaced by the commercial plantations.

In all likelihood real sustainability is going to be difficult to achieve even if so-called renewable biofuels become the mainstay of the transportation industry. For more on this whole issue I recommend Clive Ponting’s “A Green History of the World”, a brilliant analysis of man’s role in changing the face of the earth.