Oil refinery,… biorefinery

The discussions held in 2008 and 2009 at meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which were initiated by the representatives of the chemical industry community, have identified the development of biorefineries as one of the most effective solutions to reduce the serious global threat: the growth of world population, increasing demand for food, energy and water, anthropogenic climate change related with emissions of huge volume of carbon dioxide. The recently published WEF report entitled "Future of Industrial Biorefineries" gives a clear picture of the policy of many countries, both developed and developing, in this area, what latest technologies are used, what is the strategic importance of biorefineries for various sectors of the economy, what is the complexity of industrial application of products of these companies and what is the potential income.

A brief overview of this report may be of interest for us as a country, a top priority which is the gradual decrease in economy's dependence on hydrocarbon production and development of non-oil sector.

Biorefineries can be compared with oil refining, but here the source material is biomass - biological material composed of living or recently living microorganisms, which as a result of processing is transformed into fuel, energy, chemicals, materials and meals. Biorefinery as the industry is still in its infancy, and will be ready for large-scale industrial production at least a few years later. But now a growing number of large companies are investing in this market. The interest in this new industry by big companies and governments is due to a number of global risk factors: the deterioration of economic mineral resources (the use of existing reserves of crude oil is much faster than the exploration of new fields), issues of energy and geo-political security of the rising public pressure on environmental security, increased demand due to rapid population growth.

Biomass as a source material

The term "bio-based products" refers to three different product categories: biofuels (e.g. biodiesel and bioethanol), bio-energy (heat and power) and bio-based chemicals and materials (e.g. succinic acid and polylactic acid). They are produced by a biorefinery that integrates the biomass conversion processes. The biorefinery concept is thus analogous to today's petroleum refineries that produce multiple fuels, power and chemical products from petroleum.

Bio-based products can be manufactured from various feedstocks. However, at present there is no feedstock or process that would make these a clear alternative to fossil-based products. There are many options available, each with advantages and disadvantages. Two categories of feedstock dominate research: first and second generation. First-generation products are manufactured from edible biomass such as starch-rich or oily plants. Second-generation products utilize biomass consisting of the residual non-food parts of current crops or other non-food sources, such as perennial grasses or algae. These are widely seen as possessing a significantly higher potential to replace fossil-based products. The most common type of biorefinery today uses sugar- or starch-rich crops. Sugar crops such as sugar cane, sugar beet or sweet sorghum store large amounts of saccharose, which can easily be extracted from the plant material for subsequent fermentation to ethanol or bio-based chemicals. Sugar cane is currently the preferred feedstock from an economic and environmental perspective due to the relative ease of production. However, this feedstock is restricted to certain locations due to weather and soil requirements. There are approximately 400 operational first-generation biorefineries around the world yet, despite the efficiency and overwhelming success of this biofuel feedstock.

Vegetable oil is mainly used for the production of biodiesel by transesterification. There are two categories: pure plant oil (PPO) and waste vegetable oil (WVO). Pure plant oil stems from dedicated oil crops such as palm, soybean, rapeseed and sunflower seeds. The production of this is limited only by the agricultural capacity of the country. Use of waste vegetable oil, for example cooking oil or animal fat, is an effective method of recycling our daily wastes; however, it does need refinement as well as hydrogenation to become usable biodiesel.

The advantages of using algae-derived fuels as an alternative are numerous. First, they can provide between 10 and 100 times more oil per acre than other second-generation biofuel feedstock and the resulting oil content of some micro-algae exceeds 80% of the dry weight of algae biomass, almost 20 times that of traditional feedstock. They are safe, biodegradable and need not compete with arable land. In addition, they are highly productive, quick to cultivate and simply require CO2, sunlight and water to grow.

Biorefinery Concept


Biorefinery concept has been devised that is built on three different "platforms" to promote different product routes. The Biochemical Platform is currently based on biochemical conversion processes and focuses on the fermentation of sugars extracted from biomass feedstocks. The production of bioethanol requires three main steps: fermentation of the sugars, distillation to remove the bulk of the water and dehydration to further remove water from the remaining azeotropic water/ethanol mixture.

Starch-based feedstock requires saccharification to produce fermentable sugars. Lignocellulosic biomass requires steps to separate the lignin from the cellulose before the sugars can be extracted. The latter (second generation) process may be viewed as a "bolt on" to the former (first generation) process using the same fermentation processes but requiring an additional enzymatic step to extract the sugars.

The Thermochemical Platform is currently based on thermochemical conversion processes and focuses on the gasification of biomass feedstocks and resulting by-products. Where gasification of carbonaceous materials is widely used (e.g. syngas production from coal), gasification of lignocellulosic biomass is still a developing technology. Thought must given to how this process would fit in to the biorefinery concept, and how heat and power can be combined from both platforms as by-products.

Algae biofuels occupy a third Microorganism Platform, where cultivation and extraction occur on the same site.

Strategic importance for some sectors of the economy (impact on other industries)

The replacement of conventional gasoline and diesel by biofuels is technologically straightforward. So-called flex-fuel vehicles being sold in Brazil and the US can cope with pure fossil fuel and pure biofuel and any mixture of the two. In other countries such as Brazil, FFVs already have a market share of 90%; in France, the penetration of FFVs has risen to almost 10% from 0% in the past two years; in Sweden, tax exemption for distributors for installing biofuel dispensers has increased the market share of FFVs.

For airlines 50% of all operating costs are fuel costs, so the aviation industry also seeks for optimal solutions using the biorefinery products. Since 2008, Virgin Atlantic, Continental, Japan Airlines have tested engine with mixed fuel (an 80:20 mix of Jet A1 and a palm oil 80:20, Jet A1 and jatropha oil in a 50:50, etc.)

Key Challenges of Commercialization

Despite the strategic relevance of bio-based products for many industries, numerous technological and strategic challenges still hamper commercial industrialization. Technical challenges are multiple; covering feedstock yield, enzyme improvements, microbial cell factories, and processing and logistics: It is crucial to improve feedstock yield and composition of biomass for optimal conversion efficiency. This involves plant genomics, breeding programmes and the chemical engineering of desirable traits (e.g. drought resistance, photo-cycle insensitivity, cold-tolerance, sugar composition.

There are many claims and doubts about the industry: critics say that biorefineries pose a threat to biodiversity, large transnational corporations could harm rural communities, adversely affect working conditions, there is excessive use of water resources and damage to food resources.

However, the report's authors believe that despite that biorefinery is in its infancy and like all new things, is subject to various risks, it has enormous potential to create new markets, ensure energy security, develop new technologies, reduce pressure on the environment.

In September, Baku will host the first Caucasian Forum on renewable energy. The goals of the Forum are to develop environmentally clean technologies, accelerate the growth of the industry of renewable energy and its suppliers in the Caucasus region, attract oil and gas companies, banks and investment institutions for further successful investment in the industry of renewable energy. It is possible that biorefinery will be in the attention of specialists and they will be able to analyze and determine the feasibility and prospects of development of this new economic sector in the Caucasus region, particularly in Azerbaijan.

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