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6 biofuels trends that are driving facility demand

March 15, 2022

By Dean Weber

A growing market for plant-based fuels requires new infrastructure

At COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, governments joined together and set lofty goals for carbon footprint reduction. Experts say the need for a secure, sustainable, and clean energy supply should propel the demand for biofuels across the globe.

But even at an expected growth rate of 8%, the biofuels sector will have trouble meeting those goals. To move the needle toward net zero in North America, we need to build more sustainable alternative fuels facilities.

There are many factors driving the growth of sustainable alternative fuels in North America. They include greenhouse gas reduction commitments, Biden administration 2030 goals, and changing consumer demands.

A growing market

For years, the government has mandated and incentivized ethanol use. The fuel industry uses it to boost gasoline’s octane rating. Now, however, they are making a larger push for biofuels. Considering COP26, governments are implementing new mandates for the use of biofuels. Biofuels have yet to reach cost parity with fossil fuels but regulators in Canada and California are creating a market for them. California, for example, incentivizes biofuels use through state purchasing requirements. The U.S. EPA recently proposed a series of actions to strengthen the Renewable Fuel Standards and set ambitious goals for biofuels use. At the same time, the USDA has pledged $800 million to support biofuel producers and infrastructure.

Along with corporate sustainability goals and carbon reduction mandates, consumer interest is also driving this market. And the military is looking for long-term ways to use alternative fuels and bring its carbon footprint down.

Since the bioethanol boom of the early 2000s, agricultural and energy industry researchers have been interested in the use of nonfood sources for fuel. With all biofuels, there is a carbon conversion process that requires energy. But these fuels emit fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. They are low-carbon fuels.

Here are six trends we see emerging from the demand for biofuels that will impact the built environment.

The U.S. DOE Department of Bioenergy says that to meet President Biden’s 2030 goals, America’s capacity for sustainable alternative fuels production must double every year until 2030. 

1. Expect biodiesel uptake to increase

The U.S. DOE Department of Bioenergy says that to meet President Biden’s 2030 goals, America’s capacity for sustainable alternative fuels production must double every year until 2030.

Renewable fuel made from plant-based oil seeds will fill some of the biofuel demand. Biodiesel is created by hydrotreating an agricultural product like canola, soy, and sunflowers. The middle and upper Midwest and Canada have the capacity for growth in renewable diesel facilities fed from canola facilities.

The airline industry is ever more interested in renewable fuels. Sustainable alternative fuels refined from plant sources could greatly affect its carbon footprint.

2. Expect more plant and refinery conversions

The industry is converting plants that previously made food grade vegetable oil into preprocessing facilities for alternative fuels. These large hexane extraction facilities strip the oil from the plants and recover the solvent for reuse. We already see some of these facilities switching toward producing feedstock for fuel refineries.

Likewise, some of the massive refineries for fossil fuels will switch their feedstock from crude to renewable sources like canola and other biomass.

3. Look for colocation of extraction facilities and refineries

We are seeing new extraction facilities pop up as additions to existing refineries. This means the building producing the plant-based feedstock is on site with the refinery.

There are many factors driving the growth of sustainable alternative fuels in North America. They include greenhouse gas reduction commitments, Biden administration 2030 goals, and changing consumer demands.

4. We will see new extraction facilities in agricultural regions

We will also see new purpose-built extraction/feedstock producing facilities. Expect to see these in regions of Canada and the US Upper Midwest where canola and sunflower product is grown. Farther south, states including Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Alabama are seeing growing interest in soy-based facilities.

5. We will see more exploration of alternative fuel processes

The search for lower carbon fuels will grow. Better technology, new government regulations, and cost competitiveness will make alternative fuels more attractive. Federal agencies are targeting more than a billion tons of biomass in their Bioeconomy Vision for 2030.

Examples of alternative fuels include:

Cellulosic conversion of biomass: Cellulose represents about half of the dry weight of plants. In cellulose conversion, we convert biomass in the form of plant cellulose to ethanol. This process deconstructs wheat stock, wood chips, or corn husks to produce the sugars that can be used for fermentation to make ethanol. Researchers are looking for ways to make this promising technology cost-competitive—even using bugs to break down cellulose.

Biomass pyrolysis: We can take biomass and burn it in the absence of oxygen and get a tarry mess. And that tarry mess is something the industry can purify into fuels like syngas and biogas.

Anaerobic digestion: We can take waste stocks from food, anaerobically digest them using microbes and get biogas. Producers can clean that biogas and send into the pipeline. Cities like Chicago, for example, could use large anaerobic digestors to make usable energy from vast amounts of food waste.

We should expect to see more purpose-built extraction/feedstock producing facilities across North America. 

6. Expect changes in the regulatory environment

Lawmakers can improve regulations to further biofuels use while ensuring environmental and programmatic safeguards. They can, for example, pave the way for the benefit of bio-intermediates, which are partially converted feedstocks that require final processing to become biofuels. Allowing for bio-intermediates can reduce biofuel production costs. It also expands uptake for biomass-based diesel and cellulosic biofuels.

The growth of biofuel

There are many factors driving the growth of sustainable alternative fuels in North America. They include greenhouse gas reduction commitments, Biden administration 2030 goals, and changing consumer demands. To meet these goals, experts say US alternative fuel production must double annually through 2030.

We need biomass—over a million tons per year of various sources—to meet these demands. In our design and engineering work for the agricultural industry, we already see a boom in demand for buildings and infrastructure that support biofuel production. We expect that to grow.

  • Dean Weber

    A vice president on our Facilities & Process Engineering team, Dean provides strategic leadership on food and bio-processing projects. He’s worked on food, feed, chemicals, and energy.

    Contact Dean
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