New biodiesel process overcomes hydrogen technical problems

Paul Boughton

A leading Finish oil refining and marketing company has developed a new bio-based, high quality diesel fuel manufacturing process to help meet future biofuel requirements.

Known as next generation biomass to liquid (NExBTL), the new technology is the result of efforts by Neste Oil to meet growing demand for this type of fuel. According to the company, it offers not only valuable production-related benefits, but also results in a fuel with excellent product properties, particularly at low temperatures.

Neste is also confident that NExBTL overcomes the problems that other companies have had in developing biofuels capable of successfully competing against
hydrocarbon-based equivalents. So much so that a E100million, 170000t/y plant is currently under construction at Porvoo in Finland and due for completion in summer 2007 to showcase the new technology.

“We are the first oil company to successfully develop a biodiesel production process, and the first to build significant capacity for producing biodiesel,” according to development manager Raimo Linnaila of the company’s components unit. “The new fuel is also an ideal fit with our overall strategic commitment to low-emission fuels.”

NExBTL technology is the outcome of manufacturing tests that begun in the
mid-1990s, and an R&D programme launched in 2001, involving not only a team from Neste Oil itself, but also people from various Finnish universities and VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland.

One of the major strengths of the new technology, from a production point of view, is that it can use either vegetable oil or animal fat as its raw material. This enables input to be sourced both flexibly and cost-effectively. Not only that, the quality of the end-product fuel is very consistent, and free from the quality fluctuations typical of the methyl ester currently sold as biodiesel in Central Europe, for example.

In addition to consistent quality, Neste Oil’s biodiesel offers good cold tolerance and storage properties, a high cetane number, and extremely low exhaust emissions. The good performance of NExBTL biodiesel at low temperatures, an area where methyl ester-type biodiesels normally come unstuck, is a particular advantage.

Tests carried out by Neste Oil and various automotive manufacturers have shown that NExBTL biodiesel functions excellently in both car and truck engines, and performs within the key requirements set for new fuels over the next few years, in areas such as particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions.

NExBTL biodiesel is equally suitable for both old and new vehicles, and promises to be an ideal solution for meeting the growing demand for biodiesel. The EU, for example, has set a goal of having close to six per cent of vehicles in the Community running on biofuels by the end of 2010, and countries such as Germany, France, and Sweden have already introduced tax breaks to promote the use of biofuels.

As EPE went to press, Neste Oil announced that is has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Total to jointly build a large-scale production plant based on NExBTL technology. According to the MoU, the companies plan to locate the plant at one of Total's refineries, with production due to commence in 2008.

The hydrogen tablet

Meanwhile, scientists at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have invented a technology that may be an important step towards the hydrogen economy: a hydrogen tablet that effectively stores hydrogen in an inexpensive and safe material.

With the new hydrogen tablet, it becomes much simpler to use the environmentally-friendly energy of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a non-polluting fuel, but since it is a light gas it occupies too much volume, and it is flammable.

 Consequently, effective and safe storage of hydrogen has challenged researchers worldwide for almost three decades. At the DTU, an interdisciplinary team has developed a hydrogen tablet which enables storage and transport of hydrogen in solid form.

"Should you drive a car 600km using gaseous hydrogen at normal pressure, it would require a fuel tank with a size of nine cars. With our technology, the same amount of hydrogen can be stored in a normal gasoline tank,” said professor Claus Hviid Christensen of the DTU's chemistry department.

“The hydrogen tablet is safe and inexpensive. In this respect it is different from most other hydrogen storage technologies. You can literally carry the material in your pocket without any kind of safety precaution. The reason is that the tablet consists solely of ammonia absorbed efficiently in sea-salt. Ammonia is produced by a combination of hydrogen with nitrogen from the surrounding air, and the DTU-tablet therefore contains large amounts of hydrogen. Within the tablet, hydrogen is stored as long as desired, and when hydrogen is needed, ammonia is released through a catalyst that decomposes it back to free hydrogen. When the tablet is empty, you merely give it a ‘shot’ of ammonia and it is ready for use again,” he explained.

“We have a new solution to one of the major obstacles to the use of hydrogen as a fuel. And we need new energy technologies – oil and gas will not last, and without energy, there is no modern society,” concluded Jens Nørskov, director of the DTU’s nanotechnology centre. 

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