Thursday, June 23, 2011

Neste's NExBTL Synthetic Diesel Looks to Algae by 2020


Neste Oil's NExBTL process produces one of the best synthetic diesel products available worldwide. It is based upon the hydro-treating of fats and oils from a wide range of animals and plants. Now Neste is looking at algal oils as feedstock -- hoping to spur economic production of high yield algal oil by the year 2020.
The five-year AlgaePARC project, launched on 17 June in the Netherlands, is being coordinated by Wageningen University and Research Centre and will involve 18 corporate partners. The focus will be on developing technologies and processes for growing microalgae on an industrial scale as a raw material for use in fuel, food, and chemical production.

A similar project, Solar Bio-Fuels Consortium, will be launched this summer in Australia. Coordinated by the University of Queensland, this will bring together seven companies and research institutions working in the field of algae-related research. The three-year project will study various techniques for growing algae and optimizing conditions to achieve high oil yields.

Our goal is to expand the range of raw materials we use for producing NExBTL renewable diesel, and algae represent one of the most promising materials here because of their excellent potential oil yields. The key practical challenge lies in scaling up output to industrial volumes, and we hope that these two new projects will result in new ways of overcoming this challenge.
—Markku Patajoki, the Head of Neste Oil’s Biotechnology Group

Studies have shown that algae species that produce and store lipids represent a potential source of raw material for NExBTL renewable diesel. Algae grow rapidly and one hectare of cultivated algae could yield as much as 30 t/a of oil. Algae oil is also an excellent alternative in terms of sustainability, as it does not compete with food production for supplies of potable water or land. The suitability of algae oil for use in the NExBTL process has already been confirmed.

The straightforward nature and flexibility of the NExBTL process gives us a definite advantage in terms of algae research, as we know precisely the type of properties that we need. Research on new raw materials such as algae is a long-term effort, however, and you cannot expect to get results overnight.
—Pauliina Uronen, Algae Research Project Manager at Neste Oil

Neste's approach to BTL depends upon a ready and cheap lipid feedstock which can be hydrotreated to produce synthetic hydrocarbon. It is more straightforward than Choren's BTL process which utilises gasification of biomass and catalytic synthesis from syngas. But without cheap lipid feedstocks, Neste can be priced out of future BTL markets. That is why Neste is pushing high-yield algal oil development: Because micro-algae can be grown over roughly 80% of the planetary surface, using salt water, waste water, and brackish water. And micro-algae can yield from 10,000 gallons per acre of oils and up, using land or water surface not suitable for growing food crops.

The target date of 2020 is realistic, although it will likely be closer to 2030 before high-yield algal production is ready to displace a significant amount of petro-diesel and petro-gasoline.

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