Neste Moves Forward with Green Diesel

I have written periodically on 'green diesel', which is not to be confused with biodiesel. Neste, Petrobras, and ConocoPhillips (in a venture with Tyson foods), have all entered the green diesel arena. (See a bit on announced projects from these companies here; explore previous green diesel stories I have written here).

Green diesel is produced either from hydrotreating or hydrocracking plant oils or animal fats (Neste, Petrobras, and COP) or via the BTL reaction (Choren). Green diesel is chemically different from biodiesel. Green diesel has chemical properties identical to petroleum diesel, while biodiesel is not a pure hydrocarbon (it contains oxygen atoms, hence the somewhat different physical properties).

On Friday the 13th, Neste issued a press release announcing that they will build a facility in the Netherlands:

Neste Oil to build a NExBTL renewable diesel plant in Rotterdam

Neste Oil is to build an 800,000 t/a plant to produce NExBTL renewable diesel in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Construction will start immediately and the facility is scheduled to be completed in 2011. Total cost of the investment is projected to be €670 million. Neste Oil announced its decision to go ahead with a similar-sized plant in Singapore in November 2007. Both plants are linked to Neste Oil’s goal of becoming the world’s leading producer of renewable diesel fuel.

NExBTL renewable diesel is based on Neste Oil’s proprietary technology, which can use a wide range of raw materials. In its plant in Finland, the company currently uses a mix of palm oil, rapeseed oil, and animal fat to produce renewable diesel. Offering excellent product quality - even better than fossil diesel - NExBTL can be used in all diesel engines.

Neste Oil has a major R&D program under way to develop new renewable raw materials for fuel production, and is working towards a target of completely non-food raw material use by 2020. Neste Oil is cooperating with over 20 universities and research institutions globally as part of this program, which is divided into six areas, including non-food vegetable oil, wood-based materials, and algae.

Regarding the NExBTL diesel, Neste says:

NExBTL renewable diesel is an advanced fuel based on renewable raw materials that performs more efficiently and has a lower level of environmental impact than fossil diesel or FAME-type biodiesel. Neste Oil requires its raw material suppliers to observe a responsible approach to sustainability. Feedstock of this type ensures that NExBTL renewable diesel has a 40-60% lower level of greenhouse gas emissions over its entire lifecycle compared to fossil diesel. NExBTL renewable diesel can be blended with conventional diesel fuel or used as such, and is suitable for all diesel engines.

Neste Oil is the leader in renewable diesel production. The company’s first NExBTL facility was commissioned in Finland at Neste Oil’s Porvoo refinery in summer 2007. Second facility is due to come on stream there in 2009. They both have a capacity of 170 000 t/a. In addition Neste Oil is building 800 000 t/a plants in Singapore and Rotterdam. Singapore facility is due to be completed by the end of 2010 and Rotterdam facility in 2011.

While this is an improvement, in my opinion, over biodiesel, they are still going to rely on oil crops such as palm oil. Destruction of rain forests in Malaysia and Indonesia to plant palm oil plantations poses a serious environmental threat. The future of green diesel needs to be based on non-food crops - especially those like jatropha that can be grown on marginal land - and waste materials such as biomass that is currently destined for landfills.

I was curious about the costs per barrel, so I worked that out. A barrel of oil weighs 0.137 metric tons (and has density similar to pure diesel). Then 800,000 t/yr is equal to 5.8 million bbl/year (16,000 bbl/day). For perspective, a mid-sized oil refinery will be around 250,000 bbl/day, but the Neste facility is certainly of a respectable size. The cost is projected to be €670 million. If I convert that to dollars, I can compare the cost to various other fuel technologies. A Euro is currently worth $1.53, so the project is going to cost US $1.025 billion. That works out to $64,000 per daily barrel. Again, for perspective the recently announced 400,000 bbl/day Jubail Refinery Project that Total is building with Saudi Aramco is currently estimated at $10 billion ($25,000/daily barrel).

Capital Costs of Fuel Facilities

Source: EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2006

To be honest, if Neste pulls the project off for that, it will come in at a competitive cost relative to other fuel technologies. See the above EIA figure for estimated costs of various fuel facilities. And that was from a couple of years ago, when stainless steel prices were significantly lower. So, on the one hand I hope Neste pulls this off, but on the other they need to source a different feedstock than edible oils for the facility.

Two questions:

Many have questioned the EROI for Biodiesel, when the low energy trans esterification process is used, how can green diesel have a better EROI when using the same starting material plus requiring much higher temperatures for reactions? The glycerine co-product of biodiesel has energy and value so this shouldn't be discounted when comparing energy returns for the two fuels.

Second, if conventional refineries are looking at renewable triglyceride oils as feedstock doesn't this speak volumes about the supply of fossil oil available or are they using triglyceride oils as a way to restrict supply to the biodiesel producers who may be nibbling at the margins of their market no matter what the supply of crude oil is?

Many have questioned the EROI for Biodiesel, when the low energy trans esterification process is used, how can green diesel have a better EROI when using the same starting material plus requiring much higher temperatures for reactions? The glycerine co-product of biodiesel has energy and value so this shouldn't be discounted when comparing energy returns for the two fuels.

Two answers to this one. First, while the transesterification itself may be low energy, it requires methanol (or another alcohol). That is where the energy balance takes a big hit. But if you look even at the Pimentel and Patzek paper where they came up with an energy balace of less than 1 for soybean biodiesel, if you look at just the process to get the oil, that energy balance was quite a bit above 1.

Second, whereas biodiesel makes a low-value glycerine by-product, green diesel makes a propane by-product.

On your second question, I think oil companies in general recognize the need to diversify away from oil. Most have some alternative energy projects underway. ExxonMobil perhaps being an exception.

Confused by the distinction between green diesel and bio-diesel - would I be right in saying that transesterified Jatropha oil is biodiesel rather than green?

That is correct. Transesterify jatropha, and you get biodiesel and glycerine. Hydrocrack it, and you get green diesel and propane.

I assume this process requires a fair bit of hydrogen, if they are converting (CHO)n into (CH2)n. Does the 40-60% less CO2 include the hydrogen generation, and how are they doing it?

The hydrogen may come from natural gas (that's the cheapest way to make it), although it could be produced from using part of the by-product fuel gas. Since propane is a by-product, it could be your hydrogen source.

In terms of energy input, it could be energy subsidized by producing hydrogen from renewable sources via electrolysis.

This would average down the EROEI on just pure electricity from the renewable, but if the resulting average is high enough and money can be made from it, I don't see why it wouldn't be worth doing.

It seems to me that this process could use a algae biomass input, thus bypassing the problems with open-pond algae production having low oil content due to wild algae contamination - with the green diesel hydrocracking process, you don't require a high vegetable oil content, just biomass. Wild fast-growing algae that can be grown in salty or brackish pond water would be a feedstock that would not compete with food crops, and with potentially very high productivity per unit area.

just biomass.

That is not the understanding I have. I believe you need 'oil' of some sort.

That's correct. For the hydrocracking process, you require oil. For the more general BTL process in which biomass is first gasified to syngas, any form of biomass will do. Both hydrocracking and BTL have fallen under the "green diesel" moniker, but they are very different processes. The only similarity is that both result in a hydrocarbon diesel.

Thanks for the clarification.

I suppose my point still stands for the BTL gasification process.

Puzzling what's green about the so-called "green diesel".

And the green term doesn't appear in the blurbs that RR has excerpted.

One would hope for a more descriptive term of difference as "green" is also of biological origin so it seems warranted to call it all bio-diesel. Frankly, it also just smells of a PR job.

Puzzling what's green about the so-called "green diesel".

It's green because it comes from recently living biomass. It's not biodiesel, because that definition is specific to the transesterification reaction that produces a methyl ester (biodiesel) and not a hydrocarbon. Green diesel is a hydrocarbon - and whether they specifically say "green diesel" in the press release, green diesel is the term that is used to describe diesel produced by hydrocracking lipids, or diesel produced via BTL (as Choren is doing).

Thanks for clarification.

Green fuel from livestock is an oxymoron. The 2005 UN Report "Livestock's Long Shadow" revealed that world transportation caused about 13% of all co2 equivalent anthropogenic emissions, while livestock accounts for a staggering 18%! And this does not even include the incredible amount of damage done to the environment and people in general. This is pure green-washing, Tyson foods and "green fuel" - how incredibly ridiculous - or at least it would seem that way if ordinary people weren't so brainwashed. It appears that corporations will continue raping the earth and issuing bogus press releases until they cannot afford to support their bloated infrastructure - but what can you expect from such sociopathic, myopic institutions?

How is Green Diesel different to Sapphire's Green Crude in terms of chemical process and cost? Please excuse my lack of chemistry expertise.

They are pretty vague on their process. But it doesn't appear to be hydrocracking.

Yes, I was also going to bring up Sapphire's Green Gasoline / Green Crude as an adjunct to your post Robert.

Big tie-in to the medical community read: bio-synthetic organisms on this one.

Taking great aims to avoid the biofuel label though - good luck ;)

I suspect Sapphire will suffer from the same issues that all closed, photo-bioreators have.

"I suspect Sapphire will suffer from the same issues that all closed, photo-bioreators have."

Which would be?

They seem to have got been offered an "open checkbook" from the Welcome Trust which makes them sound better than average to me but who knows.

Closed photo-bioreactors are prohibitively expensive to build, operate and maintain.

The algae population must retain a high oil-weight ratio and remain as homogenous as possible.

External sources of light, nutrients and carbon are needed to sustain population growth.

The Israelis have been messing around in the Negev for sometime using outdoor/closed raceway patterns which are then connected to industrial waste emissions.

At one stage they were bragging about how the algae were taking in both the carbon and contaminants of the emissions stream -a good thing as far as pollution is concerned- but perhaps not so good for the algae population proper.

At one stage they were bragging about how the algae were taking in both the carbon and contaminants of the emissions stream -a good thing as far as pollution is concerned- but perhaps not so good for the algae population proper.

Did someone go and start People for the Ethical Treatment of Algae when I wasn't looking?

Interesting article, renewable fuel:



Actually, I have written about LS9:

Very interesting work. What they are attempting should be technically feasible, but it's going to be difficult.

1. Create "new" energy conversion process
2. Slap the word "green" somewhere on the product name
3. ???
4. Profit!!!

Given that algae oil isn't working out I wonder if there is a Lipids Limit which is maybe a subset of the Photosynthetic Limit. In other words the system can only produce so much fat. Note that grains are fed to animals to produce that fat as well as meat. Oilseeds require generous water and fertiliser. Even legumes the nitrogen fixing kind of oilseed (eg soy, canola) require a synthetic N kickstart. While both biodiesel and no doubt green diesel are superb fuels they are therefore limited in scope.

I recall an earlier RR article on the Choren process for Fischer Tropsch diesel from cellulosic biomass. Again the problem was huge capital cost. We need a process using biowaste that is low capex and can be fixed by a backyard mechanic. Noting the big swing to natural gas as a transport fuel I wonder if biogas could fill those cylinders when NG runs out. Biomethane is too messy for middle class folks so I think biosyngas from gasified cellulose could be a way ahead.

Just a minor correction....Canola is not a legume (Fabaceae) but in the same family as cabbage (Brassicaceae) and doesn't associate with nitrogen fixing bacteria.

I think there is good potential for combining heat recovery ventilation with composting to improve airflow in the compost and provide a small amount of heat energy. Growing and gasifying fast growing grasses or coppice could be a good possibility, especially if it could be compatible with existing appliances.

Algae Oil does work.
If you use a very, very expensive bioreactor.

In dollar terms, however, it's not worth it.
I've seen the costs attached to the resulting biodiesel as being equivalent to $800-$1200 a barrel. We have a long way to go before it's worth doing.

Robert I have a few questions.

1. Given that over half of all grains are fed to livestock in an inefficient process to fatten them up (esp. beef cattle), would you consider it an appropriate use of land to grow biofuel crops for the purpose of powering farm equipment that does grow food?

2. Given the relatively poor net energy of biofuel production in general, I am curious as to what happens when a German plant imports any tropical oils, whether rainforest palm of Jatropa. Wouldn't it be better in terms of net energy to use some land in Germany to grow a local oil seed crop or does the higher productivity in the tropics trump local productivity even when transportation energy is factored in?

3. If you were interested in powering local farm equipment using some form of renewable liquid fuel in temperate North America which forms of biomass and technologies are most promising to you and at what scale do they need to operate?

Sorry if you have answered these previously I haven't read all your background work.

1. If 1). The biofuel has a decent energy return (i.e., is not too dependent upon fossil fuels); and 2). It does not carry a lot of other baggage, then yes.

2. Palm is an incredibly productive oil crop. Combined with very cheap 3rd world inputs, the net energy may be better, but the cost is going to be competitive, even shipping it from SE Asia.

3. It all depends. A farmer can make his own ethanol with a minimal amount of capital and effort. But for a more sustainable option, green diesel of some variety is probably going to be the best long-term option. We have to find a better oil crop for the U.S. than soybean oil, though.