“Drop-in fuels” are defined as chemically similar, if not outright identical to conventional fuels, and are fundamentally switchable with diesel or gasoline.
Unlike ethanol or biodiesel, they can replace the conventional fuels as opposed to having to be blended with them.
Until now, algae was the predominate player in producing a drop-in fuel, but as of yet it is nowhere near commercial production.
Butanol, a product of ethyl alcohol, or isobutyl alcohol as it is also known, is a close second and there are plans for commercialization in the next few years with the retrofitting of some existing ethanol facilities in the midwest United States.
Alberta (no surprise) is not lagging behind in its efforts to participate in the renewable fuel game.
Since 2003, we have been working hard to develop our contribution to the production of drop-in fuels. Researchers at the University of Alberta have developed a process that uses heat to “crack” renewable feed stocks such as plant seed oils, animal fats (like beef tallow or cooking grease) and tall oil, a byproduct from trees and the forest industry, into molecules identical to conventional petroleum.
The process blends water and the feedstock and then uses an ultra-high heat treatment process that forms fatty acids and glycerol.
Once cooled, the fatty acids are removed from the water and glycerol and then further pyrolized to produce deoxygenized petroleum liquids.
The petroleum liquids can then be refined to gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.
This patented process, which until now was too expensive for commercialization, is the brainchild of David Bressler of the University of Alberta, faculty of Agricultural Life and Environmental Science. Bressler has spent almost 10 years working on developing an economic and simple process.
The whole process eliminates a million years of natural processes and produces a fuel that can drop into existing hydrocarbon infrastructure. What’s more, when compared to the production of petroleum using traditional methods, the production of this drop-in fuel reduces greenhouse gases, according to Bressler and his team, by an estimated 90 to 99 per cent.
This lipid-to-hydrocarbon process is now in the initial stages of commercialization with a pre-commercial plant being commissioned on the U of A campus. Once in operation, it is expected to produce 200,000 litres of renewable fuels by the end of this year. With proof of concept, a full-sized commercial plant will follow.
With the development of renewable fuels that are as energy dense as conventional petroleum, we will have made a small step forward to reducing our reliance on traditional sources of energy. This small step also moves us a little further in reducing greenhouse gases by using animal and forest waste products that we presently have limited use for or require disposal.
Using materials readily available in our environment for the production of fuel, this process reduces the use of carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years.
A small step, yes, but a step in the right direction.
Lorne Oja is an energy consultant, power engineer and a partner in a company that installs solar panels, wind turbines and energy control products in Central Alberta. He built his first off-grid home in 2003. His column appears every second Friday in the Advocate. Contact him at email@example.com.