Circular Economy – Using Waste to Make Biofuels

There has been plenty of controversy about the production of biofuels from plant sources, and the impact it has on food production and the environment. And recently, the blockage of sewage systems by waste fats has also been in the news. One smart Finnish company is applying its technology to both problems and making biofuels from food processing waste. By James Teo.

Finland, 12 November 2017. Earlier this year, a massive lump of congealed fat and debris was found to be blocking sewers in Whitechapel, London. It weighed almost 150 tonnes, and added to operator Thames Water’s monthly bill of more than $1.5million for the cleanup. Meanwhile, in the streets above, Londoners happily ran up a bill of some $65million a year for the disposal of wasted foodstuffs, and generated over 2 million tonnes of CO2 in the process. And that is just for London.

There is no doubt reducing waste would help make sewer systems more efficient, and would also reduce emissions. But it is a hard sell. One Finnish company, Neste, has taken a different route, and is perfecting unique technology that turns existing food waste and animal products into biofuels – and cutting down on blocked sewers in the process.

 Neste is a conventional oul refiner - but is moving rapidly to the role of major waste product recycler. Courtesy Neste

Neste is a conventional oul refiner - but is moving rapidly to the role of major waste product recycler. Courtesy Neste

"When it comes to the question of what kind of planet we will leave to future generations, the transition to sustainable lifestyles cannot be held back," said Matti Lievonen, CEO of Neste. But he adds that while goals such as making cities all-electric and banning internal combustion (IC) vehicles are laudable (just like stopping restaurants throwing cooking oil down the drain), there must be a changeover period to allow different solutions that look to practical realities.

 Matti Lievonen says moving directly to an all electric future is not realistic

Matti Lievonen says moving directly to an all electric future is not realistic

“The conclusion is a simple one: the future is hybrid, where some vehicles will use conventional fuels, some renewable fuels and some electricity,” he says. “As concern for the environment increases, we cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket.”

Fat chance

Accordingly, Neste is putting significant R&D efforts into research on recycling the waste energy in residue materials, and promoting the circular economy in the process. Fat-containing animal and bio-wastes and residues currently account for nearly 80 percent of the raw materials that go into Neste's renewable oil products. These include meat processing waste, fish fat from fish processing waste, vegetable oil residues, degraded oil palm fats, used cooking oil and residue generated in the production of corn ethanol. The output can then be used in aviation fuel, biodiesel, and gasoline.

However, Neste is also currently researching lower grade waste and residue raw materials that are currently discarded. This, says the company, is because the amount of waste and residues currently available to recycling refineries will likely become smaller – just as demand for biofuels goes up.

"So our business, based on renewable products and circular economics, is eating away at our traditional business operations. This is a sacrifice that [we] did not believe at first," says Lievonen

He notes that there simply is not enough waste or sustainably collectable biomass to supply current levels of vehicle consumption. So, he says, environmentally aware companies need to “support environmentally friendly solutions on all fronts.”

According to Tesla boss Elon Musk's vision, two decades from now the overwhelming portion of vehicles will be autonomous electric vehicles (EVs). Neste is more circumspect, noting that there could be significant problems relating to the excavation and recycling of lithium required for EV batteries. Lievonen urges that crossover technologies be considered rather than a single great leap to all electric. And it could be more realistic too – charging point infrastructure has a long way to go to support 100 percent EV penetration.

Not just Fuel

 Neste's Singapore plant generates other usable byproducts. Courtesy Neste.

Neste's Singapore plant generates other usable byproducts. Courtesy Neste.

Neste says it is looking to minimise waste and protect the environment in everything it does. It has set up its refineries in industrial areas, which opens doors to leverage the use of waste products from nearby industrial plants. For example, as well as bio-diesel, sulphur is recovered from waste material at one Finnish refinery, along wash lye, which can then be passed on and used by nearby wood pulp operations.

The company has also set up operations in Singapore and Rotterdam which can easily access and process waste from nearby companies. For example, Neste's renewable product refinery in Singapore has CO2 recovery built in, which increases the resource efficiency and also reduces the carbon footprint of renewable products. Additionally, CO2 generated at another refinery is recovered and sold to a local gas company.

Neste is working on processes that allow bioplastics to be produced from waste and residues, in parallel with the use of waste plastic as feedstock for lubricating and other lower grade oil products. The company says already produces enough renewable diesel fuel to power more than two million cars for a year; enough to save nearly 7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over a year. Better still, renewable plastics made from waste and residue tie up significant amounts of atmospheric CO2, making them carbon sinks to help reduce global warming.

 In 2015, this Neste powered car attempted to cross America on one tank of recycled biofuel. Courtesy Neste.

In 2015, this Neste powered car attempted to cross America on one tank of recycled biofuel. Courtesy Neste.

The company’s push to recycle and reuse started some ten years ago, when it investigated moving away from simple oil refining to become a producer of renewable products. As Hannele Jakosuo-Jansson, SVP for Human Resources and Safety at Neste notes, however, this brought new challenges to the company. They realised that new products and services could not be developed, marketed and sold in the same way as before.

“The climate, the scarcity of natural raw materials, digitalisation, changes in working life and the combined impact [of all these] ensure that every company needs to [look at] changes in business operations and operating models,” she adds. Along with a change in attitudes, too. Realistic goals can help in the short term, says Lievonen.

“The more time we spend on setting electricity, renewable fuels and other environmentally friendly energy forms against each other, the more uncertain our future will be. Instead of waiting for our vehicle pool to modernise, we have an opportunity to promote clean traffic using cost-effective [biofuel] means,” he says.