Neste Oil opens pilot plant, commercializes coproduct

By Erin Voegele | October 30, 2012

Neste Oil is expanding both its feedstock portfolio and its biobased product offerings. On Oct. 26, the company celebrated the opening of its microbial oil pilot plant in Porvoo, Finland. The facility converts waste and residue material into microbial oil feedstock. A few days later, on Oct. 29, Neste Oil announced that it has launched commercial production and sales of biobased naphtha, which can be used as a feedstock for bioplastics or as a component of gasoline.

Regarding the pilot plant, Lar Peter Lindfors, Neste Oil senior vice president, said that increasing the use of waste and residues in the production of NExBTL renewable diesel is one of his company’s most important goals. “The start-up of the new microbial oil pilot plant represents a significant step towards achieving this goal, as the plant will test how various agricultural and forest industry residues can be converted into oil with the help of microbes,” he said. “Agriculture in Finland and elsewhere, for example, produces large quantities of straw, but little of this straw is put to effective use. Thanks to the technology that we have developed, it will be possible to process straw into a feedstock for premium-quality renewable diesel in the future. Our microbial technology is also capable of handling many other raw materials as well.”

Neste Oil launched its microbial oil research program with Aalto University School of Chemical Technology in 2007. The development of the pilot plant was first announced in Dec. 2011. The first phase of the plant was completed in August. The facility has already produced microbial-rich biomass. The aim of the research is to develop a technology that can be employed on the industrial scale. According to Neste Oil, the earliest it expects to produce microbial oil feedstock on a commercial scale is in 2015.

The microbial oil production process is based on a bioreactor technology. Residues from the agricultural and pulp and paper industry are first fractionated into sugars. Those sugars are then converted into oil by microbes. The result is a feedstock that can be processed into renewable diesel or aviation fuel vial the NExBTL process.

While research to develop new feedstocks for NExBTL production is continuing, Neste Oil is currently supplying biobased NExBTL coproducts on a commercial scale. According to the company, biobased naphtha is produced as part of the NExBTL refining process. The material is a mixture of hydrocarbons, and is most commonly produced as part of the fossil fuel refining process.  Information published by Neste Oil states that the mechanical and physical properties of bioplastics produced from its renewable naphtha are fully compatible with those of plastics produced from traditional, fossil-based naphtha.

In addition to naphtha, the NExBTL refining process also generates renewable propane as a coproduct. The biobased material can be used as substitute for fossil-based petroleum. According to Neste Oil, a feasibility study is under way to assess the possibility of commercializing the renewable propane coproduct.

The company has also released its interim financial report for the third quarter of 2012. According to the report, Neste Oil produced 400,000 tons of NExBLT renewable diesel during the third quarter, achieving an average capacity utilization rate of 84 percent.