Optimism In the Biofuels Industry: Dynamic Fuels Opens Commercial-Scale Biodiesel Plant

Syntroleum Corporation and Tyson Foods have partnered in a 50/50 venture called Dynamic Fuels to produce a new high-grade renewable diesel fuel. Using a proprietary Bio-Synfining process and a feedstock of animal fats, greases, and vegetable oils supplied from Tyson, Dynamic Fuels will produce diesel fuel with the lowest greenhouse gas emission levels of any transportation fuel available today.

Last month Dynamic Fuel chose Emerson Process Management to provide the digital automation and process management systems to help operate a new $138 million renewable diesel facility in Geismar, Louisiana, the largest such plant in North America. Scheduled to begin operation in 2010, the plant will produce 75 million gallons per year of of the fuel.

The cleanest fuel on the planet

“This is not your typical biodeisel or bioethanol plant,” said Jeff Bigger, Senior vice president of Business Development for Syntroleum, adding that the plant will produce “the cleanest fuel on the planet.” Bigger says that the synthetic diesel produced at the new plant provides more energy than typical biodiesel, which in the United States is produced primarily from soybean oil. The synthetic fuel will also eliminate most of the environmental risks associated with fuels made from petroleum.

Emerson a key partner

Dynamic Fuels expects a lower cost of production than with similar biodiesel made from soybeans, coupled with a premium price in the marketplace given that the high-grade fuel is almost entirely free of sulfur and other impurities found in petroleum-based products.

Control systems and automation are crucial elements in refining the fuel, which Bigger explains is a “hydrotreating” process involving high temperatures, high pressure, and the the handling of hydrogen gas. Emerson’s PlantWeb technology will integrate a networked automation system throughout the plant, including predictive maintenance software with smart devices such as control valves, flow meters, and temperature transmitters. This level of complex process management and automation is key to ramping up commercial-scale production of the fuel. The systems put in place at the Geismar plant is scalable and can be exported to other locations.

Almost like being a venture capitalist

With $6 billion in annual revenue, Emerson Process Management has a long history of providing large-scale automation and process control systems for oil refineries, chemical plants, and other large-scale industrial processes.  Working with small experimental start-ups is a decision Emerson has pursued in its desire to help move the biofuels industry forward, despite the increased financial risk.

“It is almost like being a venture capitalist,” explained Alan Novak, Emerson’s director of alternative fuels, in a statement to the Austin American Statesman. “”We might work with 10 companies, and two or three might be successful. We know how to deal with the large energy companies of the world. This is a different way of thinking that involves a risk on our part. But we feel pretty confident that this is going to bear fruit over the long term.”

It is the eye to the long-term that is key to success for Emerson and the biofuel industry in general.

Clint Wheelock, managing director of Pike Research, sums it up well: “In the near term, the biofuels market looks like a train wreck,” he says, “However, in the 10 to 15-year time frame, the outlook remains positive.” This is due, in part, to government support of biofuels, advances in technology, and increasing economies of scale – an area in which Emerson plays a key role industry-wide.

Don’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater – undeserved pessimism for the biofuels industry

Looking toward the long-term is a task with which some pundits have difficulty, as demonstrated by the article U.S. Biofuel Boom Running on Empty, recently published in the Wall Street Journal. Novak wrote a letter in response to the WSJ protesting the pessimistic tone of the article, saying in part that it “paints a somewhat gloomy and incomplete picture of the biofuels industry,” and calling a broad-brush characterization that the “biofuels revolution…is fizzling out” as “short-sighted.”

Novak further points out that the companies Emerson does business with, like Dynamic Fuels, Range Fuels, and others, continue to aggressively invest in their biofuel operations. Both Dynamic Fuels and Range Fuels expect to open commercial-scale plants by next year.

Novak also cites reports from the International Energy Agency that indicate oil supplies are running out faster than expected, with demand outstripping supply of petroleum-based fuels. Novak urged that we not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” saying that the fledgling biofuels industry will be essential in coming decades.

No new industry emerges fully formed. The handwriting is on the wall for the sustainability of conventional fuels over the long-term. It’s writing that Novak and the start-ups he works with see with distinct clarity.

“We are trying to find the next Shell Oil or British Petroleum or Exxon Mobil — we just don’t know which one it is,” says Novak. “The only way to figure it out is by talking to all of them.”

And from that ongoing commitment comes a plant that will soon turn chicken fat into the “cleanest fuel on the planet.” The best from the biofuels industry is yet to come.

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

 

Tom Schueneman

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the HippieMagazine.com. Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.