Concerns over skyrocketing oil prices and the adverse global environmental impact of biofuels has some diesel-fuel innovators seeing green
Packing materials and construction waste could become a new and almost unlimited source of raw materials to make synthetic diesel fuel.
In 1897, Rudolf Diesel used peanut oil to power his first engine. Now, entrepreneurs and scientists the world over are fast moving into biofuels, but breaking through technology barriers and old problems creates new challenges and opportunities.
Smoke and particulates from fossil fuel have long been the bane of diesel engines, particularly in urban areas. In a bid to improve air quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started the National Clean Diesel Campaign in 2000 to reduce nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emanating from some 11 million existing diesel engines. It also started, in 2006, a regulatory campaign to require ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (15 ppm sulfur or lower) for cleaner-burning engines. "The new 2007 on-road engines need ultra-low-sulfur fuel," says Margot Perez-Sullivan, EPA spokeswoman. "About 95% are now ultra-low-sulfur diesel, and by 2010 it will be 100% for both on-road and off-road."
But with skyrocketing fuel prices and looming petroleum depletion, an alternative biodiesel fuel market is emerging. Renewable fuels, such as vegetable oil derived from soybeans, palm oil, sunflower and rapeseed, as well as spent vegetable oil from restaurants, have low or no sulfur and benzene emissions.
Many also have jumped on the biodiesel bandwagon, including San Francisco, which now has converted its fleet of 1,500 diesel-powered vehicles to run on a fuel mix of 20% soy-based biofuel and 80% diesel oil.
The basic raw materials for plastic-to-diesel production are free—you can get them at garbage dumps or inside waste-oil tanks.
But biodiesel may have a limited and controversial future. One United Nations official has called biofuels a "crime against humanity" because they drive up food prices, cause deforestation and divert arid land to crop production. They also foster monocrop cultures that deplete the soil of valuable nutrients and are susceptible to disease. So the question remains: What new fuels can power diesel engines?
One green answer may be "grassoline." Cambridge, Mass.-based Mascoma Corp. is planning to build a $100-million ethanol plant in Tennessee that will use switchgrass as its feedstock. "The idea is to convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol and do so cost-effectively," says Justin van Rooyen, Mascoma director of business development. "Only now can we do that with biotech tools such as DNA modification of the converting organism, specifically, genetically engineering them to produce more ethanol than they naturally would."
Van Rooyen adds, "Right now, ethanol is not for use in diesel motors, but it may be in the future. Converting grasses into ethanol is better because of the food-vs.-fuel controversy. This would replace corn as [feedstock]. Also, the agricultural techniques are a lot less severe in that we don't need fertilizer and chemicals to grow these plants. Finally, the life cycle of greenhouse-gas emissions is a lot less to grow and transport these products by a factor of four."
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Clyvia's fractional depolymerization process produces diesel that is identical to conventional fuel.
The Tennessee facility will produce about 5 million gallons of ethanol per year when it is completed in 2009. The firm also is planning to build two plants in Michigan and New York that will convert wood into ethanol. The $14-million New York facility is a pilot plant that will produce 500,000 gallons a year starting in 2008. The Michigan plant is still on the drawing boards for a possible 2011 groundbreaking. It will produce 14 million gallons a year and cost about $200 million.
Clyvia Technology GmbH, Wegberg, Germany, may have another answer. It has developed a process based on fractional depolymerization that converts plastics (such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene), solvents and oil waste into diesel oil. Packaging materials and construction waste also could prove to be vital new fuel sources.
"Instead of trading in waste and disposing of it at great cost, this technology enables enormous profits to be made," says Christopher Stampfli, company spokesman. "The liter price of our diesel, which is identical in its chemical composition to conventional diesel, is already more than 25¢ below oil-industry production costs, an advantage that increases with every cent crude-oil prices rise."
Clyvia's process can profitably convert up to 4,000 tons of plastic and other waste annually into 12,000 liters of diesel fuel per day, possibly providing new business opportunities for waste-disposal firms.
The company has developed processing plants that will allow waste-disposal operators to process up to 4,000 tons annually, generating 12,000 liters of diesel fuel daily. "The basic materials for this process are virtually free at any garbage dump or in waste-oil tanks," says Stampfli. The firm has had a pilot plant operating since 2006 in Wegberg-Wildenrath, Germany.
In Canada, U Mining Resources Inc., Montreal, has acquired from WUKA Service Inc., also Montreal, a new diesel fuel based on surfactant chemistry that utilizes crude oil, water and the surfactant, a patented chemical. A thermodynamic reaction creates steam, which fractures the hydrocarbon chain to convert crude oil into substitute light- and heavy-diesel fuel.
According to Jean-Michel de Montigny, U Mining principal, the new fuel costs 20% less to produce than light diesel and generates 7% more energy output. Toxic emissions also will be 5% to 30% lower. U Mining is a uranium-mining, ethanol- and green-energy research firm and will soon sell turnkey surfactant-microplant licenses.
"We have serious interest from Asia," de Montigny says. "This process will allow countries to buy crude oil from wherever they want, and then we adjust the surfactant to meet their specific needs." He notes the blended mixture consists of 33% water, 65% crude oil and 2% surfactant, which is made in Montreal. "The idea is to build plants close to existing terminals and distribution lines," he says. "The water makes diesel engines perform better and cleaner because it provides cleaner injection."
The product was tested in long-haul trucks in Canada. A typical plant would cost less than $1 million and produce 1,000 gallons of diesel per hour. "The product, whatever the source, will meet new EPA low-sulfur standards," says de Montigny.