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A new era in biodiesel

Neste Oil's first plant producing second-generation biodiesel will start up in 2007, and promises to mark the beginning of a new era for the company. The proprietary NExBTL technology behind it won Neste Oil the World Refining Association's Biofuels Technology Innovation of the Year Award in 2006. The company has now selected biodiesel as a strategic area of growth, and aims to become the world's leader developer and producer of this type of fuel.
Neste Oil Corporation

Although a lot of R&D work by oil companies is under way on developing cleaner traffic fuels, a large proportion of this tends to be focused on fuels that will be available to consumers only in 10 or 20 years' time. While Neste Oil is also committed to long-term R&D, it is also keen to address the needs of today.

Neste Oil's NExBTL biodiesel will be the world's first second-generation biodiesel to be launched commercially. In terms of quality, it clearly outperforms the existing vegetable oil and crude oil-based diesel products on the market.

The results of this commitment are reflected in the company's long track-record of pioneering cleaner traffic fuels – in areas such as cutting and eliminating sulphur from gasoline and diesel fuel, and developing and commercialising fuel component technologies for guaranteeing cleaner combustion. All of these advances have helped cut traffic-related emissions considerably over the last couple of decades.

Neste Oil has now taken its latest step forward in cleaner fuels, and potentially the most important for the company yet, with the development of a second-generation biodiesel, production of which will begin in summer 2007.

Avoiding traditional problems

Countries across Europe are faced with a growing challenge to increase their use of biocomponents in motor fuels. A recent indicative directive by the European Union specifies that close to 6% of overall gasoline and diesel fuel usage should be bio-based by the end of 2010. Production of biodiesel will have to grow by 2 million tonnes a year if these targets are to be reached. The problem, however, is that conventional technology is not really up to the job.

First-generation biodiesels are mainly methyl esters, manufactured by vegetable oil producers, which has been a major cause of concern for the automotive industry, as their quality tends to vary, depending on the quality and availability of the vegetable matter used as raw material.

Recognising this problem, Neste Oil launched a determined effort to develop its own biodiesel technology in 2000, with the aim of combining natural raw materials with traditional oil refining processes.

The outcome was a new technology known as NExBTL (

Consistent product

NExBTL-based production units can use either vegetable oils or animal fats, enabling producers to source their raw material input both flexibly and cost-effectively, and always produce a consistent product.

Neste Oil has tested a number of different vegetable oils in the process, and all have worked excellently. Animal fats are a particularly competitive raw material, as they can no longer be used in animal feed and are not suitable for many other uses either, and are normally treated as waste as a result.

Being able to use several different fatty acids as input, without the quality of the end-product suffering, makes NExBTL superior to other biodiesel production processes. It also opens up a completely new raw material window, as users will not have to compete with manufacturers of ester biodiesel for the same raw material.

This new 170,000 t/a plant based on NExBTL technology at Neste Oil's Porvoo refinery is scheduled to come on stream in summer 2007, and will be followed by a similar-sized unit in 2008.

A superior fuel

NExBTL can be blended with traditional diesel fuel, with no need to modify engines, and is also fully compatible with existing logistic systems. Drivers will not notice any difference between a standard diesel grade and one containing NExBTL, whatever the conditions or ambient temperatures.

Neste Oil's own tests, together with those carried out by a number of automotive manufacturers, have shown that NExBTL-based fuel performs very well in both car and truck engines. NExBTL enables engines to meet both upcoming emission limits, and probably subsequent ones as well, as its particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions are considerably below those produced by current fossil-fuel diesel grades, as well as first-generation biodiesel.

Compared to sulphur-free EN-590 diesel, for example, NExBTL offers over 60% lower emissions of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, 15% less NOx, over 25% less particulates, and over 20% less hydrocarbons.

In addition to extremely low exhaust emissions, NExBTL also offers consistent quality, good cold operability, and good storage stability, and an excellent cetane number.

Ramping up capacity

A new 170,000 t/a plant based on NExBTL technology at Neste Oil's Porvoo refinery is scheduled to come on stream in summer 2007.

Raw material procurement contracts have been signed with producers in Finland to provide some of the input needed, while the remainder will be sourced on the international market.

Given the attractiveness of palm oil as a raw material, Neste Oil has joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to help ensure that the principles of sustainable development are respected at all stages of its biodiesel production strategy.

The company announced in November 2006 that it will follow up this first plant with a similar unit at Porvoo, also rated at 170,000 t/a, to begin production towards the end of 2008. A further two projects are under way to start NExBTL-based biodiesel production elsewhere, in cooperation with Total in France and OMV in Austria.

On the research side, Neste Oil is committed to staying ahead of the field in areas such as applying the Fischer-Tropsch process to biodiesel production.

> Juha Rouhiainen
(Published in High Technology Finland )