Pyrolysis Party and who’s the pilot steering the ship? BTG and GoodFuels to invest in world’s 1st marine biofuel refinery based on pyrolysis oil

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There’s a party on the water and BTG and GoodFuels are the ship’s pilots steering the way to sustainable biofuel.

In the Netherlands, BTG and GoodFuels are preparing for major investment in a new biorefinery to support shipping’s low carbon fuels demands. Biomass technology group BTG will set up a new company that can convert crude pyrolysis oil into diesel fuel suitable for the shipping sector. It will be the first refinery in the world for an advanced marine biofuel based on pyrolysis oil.

The new facility will be operated by a new company named BTG-neXt. In the first phase, BTG-neXt will focus on building a pilot refinery for converting pyrolysis oil into 100% sustainable marine biodiesel for ships, in order to demonstrate that continuous production is feasible. Pyrolysis oil is made from biomass-based residues such as sawdust and roadside grass cuttings and is a sustainable alternative for replacing fossil fuels. Crucially, the new fuels will not make any concessions in terms of the sustainability of feedstocks.

Scaling Up

The new demonstration facility has a planned production capacity of a modest 1,000 tons of advanced marine fuel per year, with plans, if deemed successful, to scale up, in order to support the industry in meeting International Maritime Organisation (IMO) targets of a 50% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2050, equivalent to an 85% reduction per vessel.

René Venendaal, CEO of BTG, commented: “This initial capacity is sufficient to demonstrate that the technology works and will serve as a basis for further scaling up our operations”.

According to Venendaal, the pilot will require a six-figure investment: “We are now working on a more precise estimate of that figure”. The goal is to use the pre-commercial facility as a reference for rolling out commercial refineries with a capacity of possibly hundreds of thousands of tons per year of an advanced sustainable marine biofuel for ships.

BTG previously adopted a similar strategy for the production of pyrolysis oil in 2008, when it established a new company called BTG-BTL. Under the responsibility of BTG-BTL, the Empyro production facility in Hengelo, the Netherlands, was built, which demonstrated that it was not only technically feasible to produce oil from sawdust but that it was also a commercially viable proposition. In 2019, Empyro was acquired by the waste processing company Twence. In 2019, BTG-BTL received its first orders for almost identical copies of the Empyro plant for delivery to companies in Sweden and Finland, where sawmill waste such as sawdust will be used for producing pyrolysis oil.

Partnership with GoodFuels

The plans drafted by BTG for the next decade have been welcomed by the shipping market. GoodFuels sees sufficient potential in BTG’s plans to explore the possibility of a collective investment in the demonstration plant.

CEO of GoodFuels, Dirk Kronemijer, added: “Over the last five years, GoodFuels has laid out a clear pathway for the use of biofuels in the shipping sector. Together with partners such as Boskalis Loodswezen, Port of Rotterdam, Norden, Jan de Nul and its portfolio of GoodShipping A-Brand clients we have shown that these fuels will play an essential role in making shipping more sustainable. Crucially, the next step is to scale up the processes without making any concessions in terms of the sustainability of the feedstocks used. BTG’s initiative meets all the success criteria, and we are very proud to work together with BTG to introduce this highly significant innovative technology in the Netherlands.”

The intended location for the new pilot plant is “as close to home as possible”, explains Venendaal. “As was the case with BTG-BTL and Empyro, we need to have short lines of communication and be able to provide the services needed as efficiently as possible.”

GoodFuels intends to market the pilot volumes produced to further strengthen the commercial business case.

Venendaal added: “At present, most ships, in particular seagoing vessels, use low-quality fuel oil that is almost tar-like in nature, or marine gasoil, or diesel oil, all containing high levels of carbon. The potential for growth in terms of sustainability – driven by the IMO’s Greenhouse Gas targets for 2030 and 2050 – is therefore extremely high for this sector”.

The low-sulphur diesel fuel for the shipping sector made from pyrolysis oil will also ensure compliance with soon-to-be introduced global low sulphur fuel regulations.

Port of Rotterdam

The ports of Rotterdam and Eemshaven are the locations being considered for the first commercial processing plant.

Kronemeijer said: “Rotterdam would be our preferred location as most of our shipping clients are active here. In addition, Rotterdam offers a great many opportunities for further integration due to the significant existing infrastructure already in place there.”

BTG has been working on developing the new technology since 2000. Venendaal: ‘We have been developing various building blocks over the past 15 years, which are part of several parallel projects still underway. In the near future, we will be integrating these building blocks, in order to realise the new plant’. Venendaal has good hope that the first commercial plants will also be profitable on a limited scale: ‘We are looking at investments in the order of €200 million per processing plant, but we are already seeing that many potential clients, due to market demand, would prefer building even larger facilities’.

The technology for producing oil via pyrolysis from plant-based residual waste streams such as wood residues and roadside grass was developed 30 years ago at the University of Twente. It is actually a similar process by which fossil oil is produced in the earth. The main difference is that it takes millions of years for it to happen in the earth’s crust, whereas the pyrolysis technology accomplishes this in only a few seconds. In 1993, BTG acquired the rights from the University of Twente to further develop and scale up the new pyrolysis technology.

The Technology

The technology behind Pyrolysis oil is quite fascinating. It’s usually not suitable for direct use as a transport fuel which is why BTG’s two approaches of treating the oil are interesting. Two different routes are currently considered to produce biofuels from pyrolysis oil by BTG:

  • Hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) of pyrolysis oil to produce an oil refinery compatible feedstock or final biofuel.
  • Syngas production from pyrolysis oil, and subsequently synthesized to a transportation fuel.

In the ‘HDO process’, pyrolysis oil is treated with hydrogen at elevated pressure in the presence of a catalyst. Syngas or synthesis gas is produced from a variety of feedstocks like e.g. coal, petcoke, natural gas and naphtha. Two different approaches are further evaluated within BTG for syngas:

  • Pressurized, oxygen blow (non-slagging) Entrained flow gasification
  • Autothermal Catalytic Reforming (ACR)

Details on both of these can be found here.

Bottom Line

It’s party time for BTG lately, as reported in The Digest in October, BTG is also teaming up with another partner to produce advanced biofuels. TechnipFMC and BTG-BTL will design and build a production facility in Sweden where wood residues will be converted into bio-oil. The plant will convert roughly 35,000 – 40,000 tons of dry wood residues into oil each year using pyrolysis. This oil is then processed in a refinery to produce advanced biofuels.

But what makes this exciting is that it signifies a move forward in scaling up and bringing biofuels to market in the shipping sector. So let’s get this party on the water started! We expect to see more from BTG, GoodFuels and others forward-looking pilots steering the way that are working on bringing technology and nature together for a more sustainable future.



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