Wednesday, October 10, 2007

BBI Westcoast Biofuels Conference

(NOTE: This post hastily typed with little proof reading.)
Today is day two of the BBI Westcoast Conference.

The conference was kicked off last night with a reception and being the large supporters of the ethanol and biodiesel this industry is of course the bar flowed with hosted liquor and plenty of free fried food.

Preceding the conference was a Northwest Biofuels Association (NWBA) meeting which was also noteworthy. Primarily because the subject of "renewable diesel" was floated and discussed.

Provided was a document covering a general overview of "renewable diesel" types (which I will hopefully track down on line and post here).

If you are unfamiliar with "renewable diesel" there are several processes being pushed forward with one being an 800 lbs gorilla to the biofuels industry.

The first type (the most exciting) is commonly called thermal depolymerization which essentially forces on a commercial scale version of the geological processes that turn carbon rich materials such as agricultural waste into a crude oil which can be refined similar to petroleum.

Another exciting technologies (perpetually five more years from mainstream commercialization) along the same lines is Fischer-Tropsch. Similar to thermal depolymerization except from what I understand this process enables a commercial plant to go directly into a motor fuel during the processing of the ag-waste, coal, etc.....

Another is a process being pursued aggressively by a local Oregon company WEVCO Biodiesel. Tim Wetzel and Craig Porter the owners of this company are acquaintances and industry friends of mine so I'm very familiar with their promising technology.

The way it works (in great contrast to COP's version) is that large volumes of renewable oils (yellow grease, tallow, canola oil, soy oil, palm oil, etc...) is mixed with a petroleum component (diesel, jet fuel, distilate, transmix products, etc..) and is then catalyzed together. So some high blend (over 50% from what I understand) of vegetable oil is mixed with petroleum and then catalyzed into a fuel that meets ASTM D975 specification for onroad and offroad diesel. This process does not throw off glycerine and therefore has a higher yield of product and no lower value waste stream.

Now for the 800 lbs gorilla. Conoco Phillips (COP) and other major oil refiners have come up with a "renewable diesel" concept of their own. When I first heard of this process and saw a presentation about it from COP I immediately thought it was one of those wacky World War II ideas that had been shelved with the consistent low prices of petroleum since the era of war time rationing. I could literally imagine some old-timer form the Conoco or Phillips 66 lineage sending an old moldy copy of some paper from the 1950's to the cutting edge researchers of today.

This technology (from my passing understanding) takes natural oils (the vegetable and animal fats) and mixes it with the distillate product at the refinery before it goes into the hydrocracker. These mixing ratios being around 2% (just in line wit RFS biodiesel blending requirements). This process then turning the vegetable/animal oil into many other petroleum products and being accounted for as a biodiesel product by accounting. COP considers this a displacement of petroleum and wants this to be considered a renewable extender of diesel.

What makes this the 800 lbs gorilla? The fact that most of the feedstocks used by the biodiesel industry are less expensive for a major oil refiner to buy than crude petroleum and therefore big oil could suck up all the feedstock freezing out the fledgling biodiesel industry. Worth also mentioning the US IRS has recently even extended the $1/ gallon biodiesel tax credit for this process.

If you can imagine this led to a serious group of discussion primarily outside of the NWBA meeting. Regardless its always interesting to be in a room full of cutting edge technical people when they start arguing about technology.

This just makes me look that much more forward to the NBB Conference in February. Nothing like outside the box thinkers to get you working harder.

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