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NREL Pilot Facility Co-Produces Bio-Derived Fuel Intermediates with Petroleum Refinery Infrastructure

October 19, 2016

Photo of lab.


Fast pyrolysis—the rapid heating of biomass to 400°C–600°C in the absence of oxygen, followed by cooling the resulting vapors into a liquid bio-oil—is the first step. The resulting liquid then undergoes fluid catalytic cracking, a process also used to refine petroleum products. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

There are 110 facilities in the United States capable of fluid catalytic cracking—one of the most important conversion processes used in petroleum refineries. What if that existing infrastructure could be used to simultaneously produce biomass-derived fuel intermediates? The result: more than 8 billion gallons of bio-derived fuels—without the construction of separate biorefineries.

And it may be possible. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory—in collaboration with petroleum refining technologies supplier W.R. Grace and pilot plant designer Zeton Inc.—recently built a unique pilot-scale facility that can co-produce biomass-derived fuel intermediates with existing petroleum refinery infrastructure. The plant combines biomass pyrolysis with fluid catalytic cracking to demonstrate the potential to co-process biomass-derived streams with petroleum at an industrially relevant pilot scale.

In the front end of this innovative system, designed by NREL, fast pyrolysis—the rapid heating of biomass to 400°C–600°C in the absence of oxygen, followed by cooling the resulting vapors into a liquid bio-oil—converts about 70% of the total energy contained in the biomass. The resulting liquid product is acidic, chemically unstable, and contains more oxygenated compounds than petroleum crude oils, so a separate W.R. Grace-designed reactor unit catalytically reduces the oxygen content before condensation of the vapors occurs. This both stabilizes the liquid and minimizes downstream processing challenges, as the product can then be finished into a conventional fuel blendstock at an existing petroleum refinery.

Housed in NREL's Vapor Phase Upgrading Laboratory, the pilot plant enables a range of experimental conditions for continued catalyst evaluation, to improve the quality and yield of the bio-oil intermediate. Data generated from these tests will be available to inform future refinery integration efforts. The pilot equipment will also be made available for private companies to test related materials and processes, so that they can avoid the time and expense of building their own pilot plants—which will facilitate commercial-scale co-production of biomass- and petroleum-derived products.

Learn more about NREL's thermochemical process development and testing capabilities.