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Alternative Feedstock & Process Technology Overview

Submitted by on January 23, 2017 – 6:49 pmNo Comment

by Will Smith (Springhouse Consulting/Biodiesel Magazine)  While the majority of U.S. biodiesel is still produced from soybean and canola oil, the role of alternative feedstock has increased steadily over the past decade. The lower production costs they afford have had a significant effect on economic viability as the industry undergoes consolidation and weathers the political storms of tax credits and renewable fuel standard (RFS) volume revisions. Here we will take a look back at the past several years and examine trends in alternative feedstock usage from a technical perspective, and review technologies that have found commercial use in processing these feedstocks. The term “alternative feedstock” used in this article will include waste oils such as yellow and brown greases, crude corn oil from ethanol production, and fats derived from animal byproduct rendering.

The amount of biodiesel produced from CCO extracted from ethanol plant stillage has increased nine-fold since 2010, to a little more than 1 billion pounds in 2015. The first extraction processes were brought online in the mid-2000s with ethanol producers quickly realizing the value of corn oil as a coproduct.

Aaron Williamson, ICM product manager, estimates there are less than 10 percent of ethanol plants in operation that do not employ corn oil extraction.

Animal fats, preferred by some producers for their typically low FFA levels, have not grown significantly and, in some cases, have declined in use over the past six years, with the biggest challenge to widespread adoption being poor cold temperature properties of the finished fuel. However, the advent of renewable diesel technology has renewed interest in these feedstocks, as their saturated fats require less hydrogen to convert to hydrocarbons and there is typically less metal contamination than other low-cost feedstock like YG.

Substantial contamination issues, especially sulfur and polymers, have meant high capital costs for dedicated brown grease facilities.

Additionally, there has been some competition for the grease trap waste from anaerobic digestion facilities, especially in the western U.S. Despite these challenges, tightening laws for disposal of grease trap waste in Florida, Michigan and elsewhere have spurred new interest in brown grease recovery.

Many technologies have been proposed, and some such as enzymatic esterification and solid catalyst processes appear to hold promise, however, acid catalyzed esterification, fatty acid stripping, and glycerin esterification have emerged as the most popular techniques used at commercial scale.

Biodiesel distillation has grown from being relatively rare to a process that is now installed in more than 350 MMgy of U.S. plant capacity.

Renewable diesel is produced by hydrotreating and isomerizing vegetable oils and fats, followed by distillation to recover fuel gas, naptha and diesel fractions. The technology can also be adapted to produce renewable jet fuel. The technology is capable of using a wide variety of feedstock with elevated FFA levels, but requires extensive pretreatment to prevent trace metals in the feedstock from deactivating the hydotreating catalysts. The diesel fuel fraction produced by hydrotreating has high renewable content, and is virtually identical to traditional petroleum diesel, with no vehicle manufacturer restrictions on high blends or cold weather blending issues. Capital costs for renewable diesel facilities are significantly higher than traditional biodiesel processes, with renewable diesel plants typically being large to take advantage of economies of scale.   READ MORE

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