Drop-in biofuel developers see promise in US EPA rule change


US advanced biofuels production could get a boost under a rule change the Environmental Protection Agency is considering that would allow conventional refineries to receive renewable fuel credits for using drop-in biofuels when making gasoline and diesel.

Developers are working to commercialize these drop-in fuels or biocrudes made from feedstocks like algae, municipal solid waste and biomass.

EPA's proposal would remove an existing requirement that the production of these feedstocks -- also called biointermediates -- must happen at the same facility as the process of turning it into fuel.

Michael McAdams of the Advanced Biofuels Association said the rule change is badly needed for pushing the cellulosic industry forward.

He gave the example of an algae oil producer that builds a facility in New Mexico to take advantage of clear, sunny skies for growing algae. The location's economics make sense for producing the feedstock, but they do not make sense for converting it into fuel.

"Under the current rules, I basically have to build a hydro processor in the middle of the desert, because it has to be on the same location," McAdams said. He added that it makes more sense for the EPA to let the algae oil producer ship the feedstock to an existing refinery somewhere else in the country that can turn it into diesel or jet fuel.

If EPA approves the proposal, the refiner would be able to get renewable identification numbers, or RINs, for using feedstock shipped in from another site. "This puts a program in place that allows the transfer documents to be shared and puts a set of rules around it so they can enforce it and make sure the fuel's not being double-counted," McAdams said.

The rule change is critical to Ontario-based Ensyn's partnerships with Chevron and Tesoro to use the liquid biomass it creates in the refiners' catalytic converters.

Ensyn produces liquid biomass through a process of thermal conversion known as pyrolysis -- rapidly heating forest and agricultural waste at 500 degrees Celsius and then cooling the plant material rapidly. The resulting biocrude can then be used as a direct heating fuel or can be fed into a traditional refinery -- with both uses generating cellulosic RINs.

"The concept is to take our product and feed it into the catalytic cracker in the heart of a refinery to the tune of 3-5% and you get comparable yields of gasoline and diesel," said Ian Barnett, an executive vice president at Ensyn. "It's not a blend. It's a renewable feedstock that a refinery can use to meet their regulatory obligations."

Barnett said the process has undergone 200 trials, including at some of the refineries that will eventually use it.

Ensyn has demonstrated the process at a 3 million gal/year biocrude plant in Renfrew, Ontario, and has plans to build a 10.5 million gal/year plant in Port-Cartier, Quebec; a 20 million gal/year plant in Dooley County, Georgia; and a 22 million gal/year plant near Rio de Janeiro.

The Georgia and Brazil projects are targeted to start in late 2018, producing biocrude that US refineries would use as a feedstock for gasoline and diesel.

EPA is seeking comments on the biointermediates rule as part of a package of other changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard. Industry observers do not expect any of the measures to draw major opposition.

"The biointermediate provisions of the proposal are intended to open up new avenues for the production of advanced biofuels by allowing production to occur at more than one facility," an EPA spokesperson said. "We look forward to reviewing comments on the proposal."


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