Testing facilities, silver columns, long connecting cables, with people in blue overalls or white coats standing in between – this is the technology center (Technikum) of the Schwechat refinery. A wide variety of processes are tested in this “mini-refinery” before being used in the real refinery. Including a process in which biofuel is obtained from a waste product like glycerin.
At first glance, glycerin is pretty unspectacular: It is found in all natural fats, a viscous, colorless to yellowish sugar alcohol. “Smells pleasantly sweet”, thinks Ella Hundegger. She works in the technology center on the development of new pilot plants, and knows all about the substances and projects that will carry us forward into the future.
The goal of our OMV Strategy 2030 is to increase the focus on the production and sale of sustainable fuels. We want to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest. This means that we will have to reorganize our product portfolio and produce more biofuels as well. Hydrogen as a drive option for heavy-duty transport, the production of biodiesel, sustainable aviation fuel and blending bioethanol in gasoline production are just some of the products that will help us achieve this goal. Now Ella tells us more about glycerin and how we are using this byproduct to produce biofuel.
Why glycerin of all things?
“Glycerin is available in large quantities and you can make something very useful out of it”, explains the chemical process engineer. Because glycerin is one of the feedstocks that can be used for 2nd generation biofuels: This means that the raw materials used are neither foodstuffs themselves nor in competition with land that can be cultivated, but rather arise as a waste product in other processes. Glycerin, for example, is a byproduct that has received little attention to date and occurs in the production of biodiesel, detergents or soaps. Its viscous consistency is also ideal: “It needs no additional carrier material, just a little water and it’s ready to use”, says Ella. And it is used at the OMV refinery in Schwechat to produce biofuel – but that requires a special process.
Glycerin is ideal for use in the production of biofuel: It is a waste product, doesn’t compete with food production, has the ideal consistency – and even smells nice too
Ella Hundegger, chemical process engineer in the Schwechat refinery
How glycerin becomes propanol – and why
Processing chemical feedstock is a typical refinery task, and in this case crude glycerin is processed instead of crude oil. The process works like this: “We drive the feed mixture – glycerin mixed with a little water – into the test facility. With hydrogen, under pressure and heat, the mixture is then fed into the reactor, where our specially developed catalyst causes the glycerin to split off two of its three hydroxyl groups. What remains is propanol. This is an alcohol with better flow properties, better fuel blending properties and higher energy density than glycerol, making it ideal for adding to gasoline as a bio-component”, Ella explains. The propanol increases the octane rating of the gasoline and at the same time reduces CO2 emissions during combustion. And that is precisely the goal.
Good things take time
“We tested the process for more than six years, experimented with glycerin, optimized the plant and developed the appropriate catalyst”, Ella says. She and the team were supported by experts from the Universities of Technology in Vienna and Graz. Now the engineering teams are at work: In a Dutch factory building of Zeton, the new Glycerin2Propanol pilot plant is being pre-installed part by part. After a few months, the modules will then be delivered to Schwechat, where the plant will be assembled, installed, tested, and scaled up until it finally produces propanol from 2023 – innovation and converting refinery processes simply take time. In the meantime, Ella and her colleagues are keeping at it and conducting further tests in the pilot plant. Until the Glycerin2Propanol plant runs optimally and translates into greater sustainability in our tanks.
Glycerin2Propanol Pilot Plant – Facts & Figures
- The pilot plant will have a capacity of 1.25 million liters of propanol per year. This will result in savings of around 1,800 metric tons of CO2.
- To make 1 liter of propanol, you need 1.2 liters of crude glycerin.
- Under moderate temperatures and pressure, the energy-saving process produces 1 barrel (= 159 liters) of propanol per hour.
- The long-term plan is to commercialize the process to produce about 125 million liters of propanol per year and reduce CO2 by 180,000 metric tons.
- In addition to the use of propanol for biofuel, it can also be used as a biogenic feedstock for the chemical industry.