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By Ben Owens, Vice President General Manager, Sustainable Technology Solutions
UOP has pioneered new technologies for the oil and gas industry for more than 100 years, anticipating emerging needs and evaluating megatrends in global energy markets. During the current downturn in the industry, UOP continues to focus on delivering solutions that generate greater value and provide the flexibility to quickly adjust to changes in market demand.
Today, customers around the world are increasingly focused on sustainability and lessening the environmental impact of transportation fuels. Public sentiment has led the formation of new mandates by regional and local regulators to promote the use of renewable fuels. The goal of these mandates is to commercialize production of cleaner burning fuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In North America, the US Renewable Fuel Standard and the low-carbon fuel standards in California and British Columbia are incentivizing production and blending of substantial new volumes of biofuels into gasoline and diesel blendstocks. In Europe, the Renewable Energy Directive II program encourages higher renewable energy use in transport fuels, including specific requirements for blending of advanced biofuels. We also see programs for increased biofuels consumption in Asia and South America that match the demands of their local markets.
These changes represent the latest step in the evolution of the industry, showing the resilience of refiners to adapt to changing market conditions. The industry will continue to meet public demand for advanced fuels that meet stricter environmental guidelines while maintaining sound production methods.
UOP’s Renewable Fuels group has been active since the mid-2000s, commercializing process technologies that convert liquid and solid biofuel feeds into transportation fuel blendstocks. Through cooperative technology development with industry partners such as Eni, and with government organizations and universities, UOP has created processes to efficiently convert liquid biomass into advanced biofuels. The UOP EcofiningTM process converts vegetable oils, animal fats and used cooking oils into renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel. The Ecofining process is the industry’s leading renewable fuels technology, having entered commercial operation in 2013 at the Diamond Green Diesel site in Norco, Louisiana.
As demand for fuel products change, refiners are looking for ways to repurpose existing assets so they can efficiently produce renewable fuels. In fact, significant production capacity is available for making renewable fuels while helping to control investment and operating costs. This enables the industry to introduce new types of fuels with minimal disruption to existing operations.
UOP’s Ecofining technology presents exactly this type of opportunity. Three of the four units currently in commercial operation are conversions of existing refinery units to 100% green feedstock processing. Ecofining technology is easily adaptable, using existing hydroprocessing assets such as reactors, strippers, compressors and fractionators to convert a mix of renewable feeds to finished fuels.
Refinery revamp conversions are typically 30% to 50% of the capital cost of similar-capacity greenfield projects. The cost of these projects can be reduced significantly by repurposing the existing equipment, utilities infrastructure and fuel storage facilities, while conserving space. This also allows project schedules to be reduced, with shorter equipment lead times and earlier commercial production. Tradeoffs for such a revamp can include capacity limitations, restrictions on product qualities and the ability to produce both renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel.
Beyond processing of 100% renewable feeds with the Ecofining process, UOP offers other technologies for coprocessing of green feeds to produce green transportation fuel blends. The first option is coprocessing vegetable oils and animal fats with petroleum feed in a distillate hydrotreater. This is a low capital cost route to meet compliance requirements without significant capital outlays. Coprocessing is typically the first step toward renewables for meeting regulatory requirements.
UOP supports zero to 30% blends of renewable feeds for coprocessing in a hydrotreater. The decision on the blend volume is determined by compliance requirements and the project budget. For blends less than 5%, minimal equipment changes are required, although trim dewaxing may be needed to meet specific product qualities. In addition, at less than 5%, oil and fats coprocessing is approved for the production of aviation fuel. Between 5% and 30% blends, more process modifications are needed that require increased capital investment, including additional dewaxing to meet product cloud point.
These all are well-established methods to produce renewable fuels, but UOP continues to develop new technologies to meet the emerging and future needs of the industry. Over time, the regulatory programs in North America and Europe emphasize increasing use of biofuels produced from cellulosic biomass and waste feed materials. Technology pathways converting solid biomass and waste materials into biocrude feeds for refinery processing are likely the future of the industry. These solutions provide a sustainable fuel pathway while delivering the largest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
UOP has been developing technology for coprocessing of pyrolysis oil from solid biomass materials in a fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit since 2012. It is a straightforward solution using a blend of biocrude produced from wood and agricultural materials as co-feed in the FCC. Utilization of the primary gasoline producing unit is a good way to supply a partially renewable fuel beyond fuel ethanol blending limits. This solution has been tested at commercial scale and is available for refinery integration today.
The industry’s next step is likely to include expansion of renewable feedstock supplies that can be processed in the refinery. UOP is working on new technologies to take sustainable feeds such as low-quality residual biomass, municipal solid waste streams and recycled carbon and upgrade them into transportation fuel blendstocks. Without these new sustainable feedstock supplies, the refining industry cannot supply the volumes of sustainable fuels required under certain public policy goals.
UOP continues to believe in the strong foundations of the refining industry to supply the fuels of a changing customer landscape. Accordingly, UOP will continue to plan for the evolving needs of fuel customers and bring cost effective, environmentally sound technologies to market.