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How ecofining was born

The joint development of the Ecofining process that Honeywell UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals business has undertaken with Eni.

by RP Siegel
04 February 2020
6 min read
by RP Siegel
04 February 2020
6 min read

Back in 2003, the European Union came out with a directive in response to climate change, requiring that a growing portion of all transportation fuels be produced from biological sources. According to the directive, that number will need to reach 10% by 2020.
Eni, the Italian integrated energy company, decided to confront the challenge with a new high quality biodiesel using an approach that had been in development for some years. The approach was called Ecofining. The process can provide an alternative to traditional biodiesel, known as fatty acid methyl ester or FAME.
The use of traditional biodiesel, while greener than petro-diesel, involves a number of compromises: NOx and Sox emissions, a cloud point that is dependent on the feedstock used, reduced fuel economy, filter clogging, and the need to be blended with conventional diesel in order to be used in unmodified engines. Other issues listed on Eni’s website include, “low levels of chemical stability, inadequate cold reactions, fouling and low levels of energy content per unit of fuel.”
Many car manufacturers now advise using no more than a 7% blend of biodiesel in their engines.    


The first conversion in the world

At the time of the directive time, Eni was having regular meetings with UOP, a division of Honeywell from whom they license refinery technology. The companies discussed the possibility of working together on the development of this new type of biodiesel, and in 2005 an agreement was reached. UOP applied its expertise to Eni’s catalytic process and made some further refinements.
European refineries were undergoing financial challenges at that time, due to shrinking margins resulting from price differences between West Texas Intermediate and Brent Crude from the North Sea. Eni made the decision to revamp its Venice refinery, which was becoming redundant, from petroleum to biofuel. This was the first such conversion in the world.
In this way, according to Giacomo Rispoli, Executive Vice President of Portfolio Management & Supply and Licensing for Eni, the company was able to reduce its excess capacity without closing a plant. Converting a traditional oil refinery into a “green refinery” saved a considerable amount of time and money. The conversion process was granted a patent in September 2012. According to Rispoli, the turnaround started in September 2013, and was up and running by May 2014. The cost was somewhere between 20-25% of what a brand new EcofiningTM facility would have cost.

“New Green Diesel is a pure hydrocarbon, which means Sulphur and nitrogen-based pollutants will be low. It can be used in unmodified diesel engines at full strength or at any blend ratio”

The Platts Industry Leader Award

Jim Andersen, Business Director for Green fuels at UOP, says the chief merit of the Ecofining technology is its ability to work with a wide variety of feedstocks ranging from fats, oils, greases, and algae, to a variety of oil seeds — and to meet any fuel specification for either diesel or aviation fuel with any of them. The process, which became commercially available in 2007, also achieves a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission levels.
To get from that point to a new refinery was a lengthy process that involved establishing the supply chain, testing the process with the various feedstocks, getting agency certification for the fuel produced, and obtaining financing. At the same time Eni had to do a lot of upfront design work to plan the conversion of the petro plant into a biofuel plant.
In the interim, UOP designed and completed the Diamond Green refinery based on the same process. It is located in Norco, Louisiana, and jointly operated by Valero’s Diamond Alternative Energy subsidiary and Darling Ingredients. More recently, AltAir converted an existing petroleum refinery to one that produces renewable jet fuel using the same process in Paramount, California.
In December of 2015, Honeywell/UOP and Eni received the Platts Industry Leader Award for Biofuels in recognition for its role in multiple renewable fuel technologies through the Ecofining process.
From Eni’s perspective, unlike FAME-type biodiesel, which contains oxygen, this new Green Diesel is a pure hydrocarbon, which means Sulphur and nitrogen-based pollutants will be low. It can be used in unmodified diesel engines at full strength or at any blend ratio.
It is in fact a fuel that is superior to even conventional petroleum based-diesel in the areas of heating value, sulphur content, cloud point, NOx emissions, polyaromatics and most important of all: cetane value, where it is nearly double that of conventional diesel. Cetane is analogous to octane value in gasoline. A high-cetane fuel enables engines to operate more effectively, and can be blended with low-cetane diesel to meet transportation requirements.
Some of the challenges in the development of this new fuel, beyond optimizing the catalyst, was in developing the know-how associated with such an unconventional supply chain, including fats rendered from meat, used cooking oil, oil from seed crops, and so on. The company had to learn to identify the fuel sources, their composition and their contaminants, and understand how to tune the process to be able to accommodate all of them, while maintaining the ability to predict yield and guarantee performance.


From Venice to Gela

Says Andersen, “the process continues to be refined each year, primarily expanding the range of feedstocks that can be used. Feedstocks are plentiful even as more sources continue to be developed.” The pinch point is the capacity, which, while being utilized at 100%, still only accounts for 0.1% of total fuel consumption.
Says Rispoli, the Green Refinery idea is part of the “Eni Green Strategy,” based on the “make option.” “Eni has entered the biofuels market with a new generation of very high quality biofuels from renewable feedstocks. Eni was able to turn a critical situation into a great opportunity by investing in the innovative Green Refinery project. Green diesel, in particular, will be distinctive of Eni diesel fuel, assuring premium quality for stronger competition. Moreover, by this strategy, Eni can reduce traditional refining capacity without losing technical and scientific know-how and largely keeping the national refining industry structure.”
Given the success of the first conversion, Eni has decided to increase capacity at the Venice plant and convert a second refinery, located in Gela (Sicily), based on the same model.
In January 2016, Eni launched a new diesel fuel called Eni Diesel+, containing 15% of HVO. The use of Eni Diesel+ reduces CO2 emissions and other pollutants such as CO and particulate. The increase in the cetane number (from 55 to 70-90) helps to improve the combustion efficiency, and improve the acoustic comfort level (-2dB). Initial market data is showing a significant increase in sales.