Biomass-to-jet fuel projects to take off

June 20, 2013 | 00:00

Biomass-to-jet fuel projects to take off 

In the coming years, one of East London's disused brown field sites will form the basis for an ultra modern fuel facility. About 500,000 tonnes of the city's waste per year is going to be processed into 50,000 tonnes of jet fuel, 50,000 tonnes of diesel, green naphtha and 40 MW of green electricity. Micro channel technology has the potential to offer a new solution for making use of natural gas that would otherwise be left in stranded fields or flared, and waste biomass by converting these into liquid fuels.

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GreenSky London is being developed by Solena Fuels, a company that is focused on producing drop-in fuels for airlines and shipping companies. They work together with the end users of their fuel to develop these facilities. Up until now, only a handful of giant gas-to-liquids plants have been commercialised, at minimum capacities of 30,000 barrels per day, such as Sasol Oryx and Shell's Pearl that are both located in Qatar. In this case, British Airways has committed itself to purchase all the synthetic jet fuel for ten years, worth around $500 million at current prices for conventional kerosene. Powering planes with this sustainable fuel is expected to bring carbon dioxide emissions down by more than 60%, as an independent assessment by UK-based North Energy Associates shows.

Velocys – a US-based subsidiary of Oxford Catalysts Group – is going to deliver micro channel Fischer-Tropsch units to these future biomass-to-jet fuel projects. The Fischer-Tropsch process converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into synthetic liquid fuels. Their innovative reactor intensifies the process over ten times compared to conventional technology. These innovative micro channel reactors could become a game changer. “Our reactors have a productivity rate over ten times faster compared to conventional technology offered by others.” says Jeff McDaniel, commercial director of Velocys.

Up until now, only a handful of giant gas-to-liquids plants have been commercialised at minimum capacities of 34,000 barrels per day, such as Sasol Oryx in Qatar and Chevron Escravos in Nigeria which will start producing this year. The jewel in this crown is Shell's Pearl in Qatar that has an output of 140,000 barrels oil and 120,000 barrels natural-gas-liquids (NGL) per day. This facility equals the size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens together and came at a price tag of $19 billion.

Major companies support the project

Micro channel technology has the potential to offer a new solution for making use of natural gas that would otherwise be left in stranded fields or is flared, and waste biomass by converting these into fuels. Hence, in total, Velocys has received around $300 million of investment in its technology from partners such as BP, Chevron, Total and Petrobras. The latest addition to this list is Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has invested $7.6 million for a 3.5% stake in the company.

The synthetic jet fuel and diesel that are produced following the Velocys Fischer-Tropsch process and subsequent hydroprocessing cost between $50 and $70 per barrel to produce, depending on the feedstock that is used. The company is focused on conquering the market with modular plants that can convert natural gas or biomass in the 1,000 to 15,000 barrel per day range, such as the various GreenSky projects that are now taking off.

Blueprint

The technology applied in the GreenSky London facility will be used as a blueprint for other biomass-to-jet fuel factories that are under development in Rome, California, Stockholm and Berlin.
“The Fischer-Tropsch process releases a lot of heat and is very temperature sensitive,” continues McDaniel. “If it is not hot enough the reaction will not occur, but if it is too hot you stop producing the desired product and things get messy. So it is very important to control the reaction in the right temperature range.”

Hence, the reactors contains many small diameter channels that are closely coupled to the coolant system in an interweaved structure. “One layer of process channels is alternated with a layer of cooling channels. This is repeated one after the other so there is always close intimate contact between the area in the reactor where heat is generated and the area where heat is released.”

A cobalt-based crystalline catalyst, manufactured by Oxford Catalysts Group's patented Organic Matrix Combustion method (OMX) is loaded into these stainless steel micro channels. This OMX method combines the metal salt with an organic component, but “it's confidential which materials are used and how we utilize them,” says McDaniel. “What it allows us to do is to better control the size of those particles and thereby get much higher activity than you can with conventional catalysts.” This is again a matter of finding the right balance. McDaniel again: “If these crystallites are too small, they are very active but not very stable; if they are too large than they are stable but not very active.”

With these innovations, Velocys has created a stable system in which temperatures are closely controlled, leading to a very slow decay in catalyst activity. This means that reactors will be able to operate for longer before the catalyst needs to be replaced. To reduce costs, the company has standardised the design for individual micro channel reactor cores and incorporates several of those cores within a single reactor. One reactor core can produce 40-50 barrels per day of liquid fuels. “Based on current design we expect the early commercial reactors with four cores to have a capacity of approximately 175 barrels per day,” states McDaniel. “These reactor cores will operate in parallel, and are welded together into a single vessel. We call this process numbering up. This allows us to match the number of reactors to the throughput requirements of each specific plant.”

“Conventional Fischer-Tropsch reactors are scaled up: you advance from a small vessel to a bigger vessel, to an even bigger vessel and each time you do that there are key parameters that change like temperature distribution or flow distribution. In our case the key dimensions stay the same, and we can match exactly the performance in one channel with that of tens of thousands of channels.”

Many opportunities

Apart from the GreenSky projects with Solena Fuels, which are developed in collaboration with Alitalia, American Airlines and Lufthansa among others, Velocys has collected an impressive list of partnerships. “Right now, we are working with about 40 companies on a global basis,” says McDaniel. Its reactors have been selected by Sierra Energy for a waste gasification plant to produce diesel fuel at an output of 25-100 barrels per day. “The project is in an early planning phase, which is why there is quite a broad spectrum in the production capacity.” This demonstration plant could be the leap towards a larger roll out, and one of the drivers for the activity in North America is that these projects qualify for tax incentives that are in place for sustainable fuels.

“However, at this point most of our efforts are in gas-to-liquids,” McDaniel points out. “Calumet Speciality Products now plans to progress with the more detailed engineering and market analysis for a plant of approximately 1,400 barrels per day. At the conclusion of this study, which is expected to last about six months, Calumet will be in a position to decide on proceeding with fabrication.” This plant is located in Pennsylvania within the heart of the Marcellus shale so Calumet will be able to take advantage of abundant low cost natural gas resources in the US. The output of the gas-to-liquids process is pure paraffin hydrocarbons, which Calumet will use to produce food-grade waxes, cosmetics and lubricants.

One of the most exciting projects is the development of the first off-shore gas-to-liquids plants with Petrobas, Brazil's National Oil Company. McDaniel explains: “They have discovered a number of large oil fields that are in deep water and want to convert the co-produced natural gas into liquids.” For this, Velocys needs to meet a unique set of requirements. “You are literally putting a chemical processing facility on top of a floating vessel in an ocean environment.” The market for making beneficial use of stranded gas and gas that would otherwise be flared is huge. “The total amount of natural gas flared in the world per year, is roughly equal to the amount of natural gas consumed by France and Germany combined,” according to Mc Daniel. If all this gas was converted to liquid fuels, it would be possible to produce 500 million barrels on a yearly basis.

Also, the company has calculated that about 95% of gas resources in the world are too small for a conventional gas-to-liquid plant, such as a 30,000 barrel per day plant. The use of smaller scale plants in the range of about 2,000 barrel per day would open up 40% of the world's gas fields to economic viability. However, McDaniel also sees enough possibilities in the area of waste biomass. Again, this is about making use of limited feedstock at scattered locations, which means that small scale plants are the only solution to make use of these materials.

The company estimates that the opportunity for biomass-to-liquid fuels could be well over five million barrels per day. For the future, McDaniel foresees a “fuel plant at the waste processing facility of many large towns or cities, anywhere in the world, that produces fuel that can be used by the local community or sold for its economic benefit.”

GreenSky London is to become Europe’s first biomass-to-jet fuel facility. Velocys will deliver turnkey micro channel technology to make this plant a commercial reality.

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