3 ways digitalization creates sustainable and efficient operations for biofuel refineries

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Biofuels play a key role in reducing greenhouse emissions by providing an alternative to traditional fossil fuels. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), modern bioenergy is the largest renewable energy source globally, accounting for 55% of renewable energy and over 6% of the global energy supply. The EIA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario (NZE) sees a rapid increase in the use of bioenergy to displace fossil fuels by 2030. In 2022, with the help of digital transformation initiatives, the biofuel industry is projected to produce 175 billion liters of fuel with a projected annual growth rate of 7%.

With this projected growth, investments are increasing for either:

  1. Retrofitting existing refineries to accommodate biofuel production
  2. Building new biorefineries that can accommodate second-generation feedstock types

In recent years, there has been an increased push to utilize second-generation feedstocks, which are non-edible food crop byproducts (e.g., used cooking oil, animal fats) that do not compete with the global food supply chain. They are critical to producing important biofuels such as renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, which helps ensure our planet’s plant resources are more efficiently optimized.

As biorefinery owners scale up and modernize their operations to accommodate sustainability requirements, many move beyond the planning and proof-of-concept stages to invest in commercial-scale greenfield and brownfield projects.

New plants are built to drive the production of low-emission sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), for example, to better support global transportation industry decarbonization requirements. In addition, technologies like hydrotreaters are being added to both direct and indirect production schemes to remove contaminants and facilitate the growth of renewable diesel streams.

New government mandates and incentives are also driving biofuel industry growth:

  • In the US, for example, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $500 million for biofuel infrastructure improvements and extends biomass-based diesel and second-generation feedstock tax credits for two years.
  • In California, the government is extending Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) credits to lower biofuel production costs, enabling producers to make biofuels more price competitive vis-à-vis fossil fuels.
  • In Europe, the European Commission has launched initiatives and programs such as NER300, Horizon2020, EIBI, ERA-NET+, and BBI to offer public co-funding towards the capital costs of industrial-scale demonstrations of advanced biofuels and bioenergy.

Production challenges addressed through digital transformation

Several new challenges emerge as marketplace trends and regulations disrupt the traditional production and distribution value chain like:

  • High production cost, which is double to triple of fossil fuel equivalents  
  • Vulnerable new process technologies that are required to process next-generation feedstock
  • Complexities surrounding the variation of physical properties because of the next generation of feedstock  

To mitigate these challenges, consideration for feedstock flexibility, maximizing yield and operational safety and efficiency are critical. These will help to minimize capital and operational costs, reduce production downtime, and accelerate product time to market.

Fortunately, technological innovation in control automation and new digital technologies enable biofuel refinery operators to address these risks and uncertainties by driving operational agility and resiliency.

There are three key ways how digitalization helps biofuel refineries to migrate to more sustainable and energy-efficient operations:

  1.  Optimized design and build – Simulation platforms for electrical systems engineers take inputs from the live electrical systems and enable engineers to run “what if” scenarios within a tool generically known as a digital twin. The engineers can quickly generate simulation scenarios of what will happen when changes are made to the electrical system without impacting the live system. This capability greatly reduces system downtime risk by driving a more accurate decision-making process.

    In addition, new software solutions enable the convergence of process automation and energy management for greenfield biofuel sites. On the operations side, these tools make it possible to integrate the worlds of power, motor controls/drives, automation systems, and safety control systems in a single decision-making environment at an affordable cost. Managing this convergence helps ensure continuous operations by handling any unforeseen disturbance − electrical or process − in real-time.
  2. Efficient and sustainable operations – In current biofuel refinery operations, new tools now use renewable identification numbers (RIN) to track batches and the biological components used in production. Such tracking is critically important for reporting data to regulators that facilitate the flow of financial credits to the refinery operation.

    Platforms like AVEVA Unified Operations Center combine with Schneider Electric’s SCADA and DCS automation systems to integrate data from software solutions using a single pane of glass. Visibility to assets and operations can now extend from a single refinery to an entire fleet of global refineries. This enables operators to extract business value from the expanding data pool and process information. In addition, advanced process control (APC) systems integrate automation systems in real-time with historical data to analyze, identify, and model significant process cause and effect to help optimize process efficiency.
  3. Advanced maintenance and support – Remote monitoring software and sensors within automation and power system assets enable condition-based and predictive maintenance. By streamlining maintenance activities through intelligent monitoring, maintenance planning is now more efficient with a single source for maintenance analysis. Potential issues are flagged and researched before they result in unexpected and extended downtime.

Support for your biofuel refinery

Companies like Schneider support evolving biofuel refineries with a broad portfolio of automation, safety, and power solutions. These include offerings from industry-leading software providers such as AVEVA (process automation), EcoStruxure™ Triconex (safety), and ETAP (power and energy management).

To learn more about how Schneider can help support your biodiesel facility modernization efforts, visit our Energies & Chemicals webpage and look for our upcoming blog on next-generation biofuel facilities.

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