Newest UK plant turns rapeseed oil into ‘green fuel’

Biofuel company Greenergy has started production at its new biodiesel plant at Immingham. CLEMMIE GLEESON went to visit.

PRODUCTION at the UK’s newest biodiesel plant is now in full swing. Rapeseed oil from crops harvested last year is being converted at the Greenergy plant into the ‘green fuel’, which promises to be less environmentally damaging than conventional equivalents.

It is at the Port of Immingham on the south bank of the Humber (the busiest commercial estuary in the UK), which has deep-water facilities and a ready-made infrastructure for the distribution of fuel. It is also close to several large crushers.

Output is currently 100,000 tonnes a year – enough to supply 2.25 billion litres of biodiesel at 5 per cent blend – but the company plans to double this with ‘phase two’ of its plans, due for completion later this year.

The process starts with the arrival of unpurified rapeseed oil from nearby crushers. Oilseed rape is one of many feedstocks available to the company, but will form about 50 per cent of its total feedstock.

The first stage of production starts with refining the unpurified oil. Greenergy chief executive Andrew Owens said other plants do not have the facilities for this process and therefore have to buy in refined oil. “But we wanted to be able to buy oil from anybody, which isn’t necessarily refined,” he said.

The refining process accounted for half the capital costs in setting up the plant, but contributes half the margin, he said.

Between 5 and 7 per cent of the oil is lost during the refining process but the company plans to reduce this further (to around 1 per cent) with the addition of another process – part of ‘phase two’ in the building project – which will extract further oil. The resulting refined oil is clear and stable and an ‘excellent feedstock for biodiesel’, said Mr Owens.

The next stage starts with esterification, where the refined oil is mixed with methanol (nine parts oil to one part methanol) to make biodiesel and glycerine by-products (9:1). The glycerine is then separated and sold into the food, cosmetics and animal feed industries and the biodiesel is ready for blending.

“This is a zero waste plant,” said Mr Owens. “There is no waste product whatsoever – everything going in comes out as an economic product. We wanted a zero waste strategy because waste costs are a one-way train.”

This includes the free fatty acids (FFA) from the refining process which go into the chemical industry and animal feed industry as well as glycerine from esterification.

All the rapeseed used in the plant will be UK grown. The company has had ‘field to forecourt’ contracts in place since 2003 to guarantee supply for the plant which is now processing 2006 harvested rape. Around 1,200 farmers are now contracted to supply the plant with up to 160,000 tonnes, the upper level of anticipated requirements.

Worldwide, soya, palm, linseed, sunflower and peanut oil are all used as feedstock. “Rape is the main oil for us, but not across in the world,” said Mr Owens.

The price differential between different oils has widened over time, he said. Rape had been becoming more expensive, however a bigger than expected crop in Europe has meant there is more on the market, which is reflected in a slightly lower price now. Similarly, the German Government’s decision to tax biofuel (having previously been tax free) has created a dip in demand.

“The accountants’ solution would be to buy palm oil because it is cheaper,” he said. But a biofuel made from palm oil is unsuitable for the British climate and would solidify in the tank.

“It’s fine if you live in the tropics, but not in Immingham. We have to buy the cheapest – biodiesel is a fuel in commodity business and we have to keep our costs low.

“We also have to look at the specification that the market requires so we formulate a feedstock mix that is the lowest cost per season.”

With conventional fuels there are different specifications for each season and it is the same for biodiesel, he said. So, the company has to change the ‘recipe’ for its biodiesel regularly depending on feedstock prices and availability.

Greenergy does buy other oils, predominantly soya and palm oil and these can come from ‘anywhere’ in the world, said Mr Owens. “We have traded with every continent other than Antarctica.”

He welcomed the Government’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (ReTFO) which requires 5 per cent of all fuels sold in the UK to be from renewable sources, but said the requirement does not go far enough. “With tick boxes there are no incentives to improve – we need to move away from that.”

All biofuel products have different carbon footprints ‘from virtually carbon zero to hardly any benefit’.

Like the NFU, he advocates a carbon accreditation scheme where producers would have to prove the environmental performance of biofuels compared to fossil fuels and the sustainability of their production.

“We could start carbon accreditation next week, it is not difficult to do,” said Mr Owens. “The key issue is that any system we put in place as a country must mesh in with systems going on globally.”

It is also important that northern hemisphere crops are not penalised in such a system, he said. “Plants don’t grow as fast in colder climates and they require more fertilisers.” Rape also is not as high yielding as other feedstocks and as fertiliser and yields have more impact on carbon footprint than shipping, it does not necessarily stack up well against palm and soya.

Since the ReTFO announcement in November 2005 Greenergy’s sales have increased dramatically. Before the Immingham plant it was selling biodiesel manufactured in Holland and this continues as its current sales exceed the output at the new plant.

“This month we have had our all-time record and delivered 22,000 to 25,000 tonnes of biodiesel alone, which is bigger than the annual market was 18 months ago,” said Mr Owen.

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