May 4: First step to bio-refinery park in Delfzijl
In two weeks time the BioMCN industrial installation to convert glycerol into methanol will go online in Delfzijl. It's the first step towards a complete 'green' refinery park based on biomass conversion into fuels.
 
The huge installation with two production lines was set up in the 1970's to convert natural gas into methanol. When gas prices were low and methanol was expensive, this was a lucrative business. However, as gas prices, which in the Netherlands are coupled to oil prices, went up, the gains went down and the plant was taken out of production.
 

 
It got a second life when someone saw a chance of using the same installation to convert glycerol into methanol. Glycerol is a by-product of biodiesel production one tonne for ten tonnes of biodiesel. Methanol is a car fuel additive. The European Union has set a standard of 5,75 percent methanol contents in 2010 and the prescibed biofuel content will slowly be raised over the years, thus providing a guaranteed market for methanol.
 
BioMCN is currently working with 85 men at the last adaptations of the old gas converter to glycerol.
 
Glycerol from biodiesel manufacturers has to be cleaned first of contaminants before being fed into the process in order or protect the catalysts. It is then heated and quickly vapourised with steam at 300 degrees Celsius. The vapour is then cracked at more than 650 degrees and reformed into syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen).
 
The syngas is converted by the existing installation into methanol. A housing block-sized installation containing hundreds of long pipes at 850 degrees and 25 bar filled with a nickel catalyst performs this process.
 
The capacity of the plant is expected to be 400 thousand tons of biomethanol at the end of 2010. Refurbishing of the second production line can double that capacity, but that would be more than the current production of glycerol as a biodiesel by-product. The current production of biodiesel in Europe is 5,5 million tons per year, which means 550 thousand tons of glycerol.
 

 
Plant manager Paul Compagne tells that plans exist to install other bio refinery plants at the neighbouring empty industrial lots. Sustainable energy giant Ecoconcern studies the installation of a plant for torrefaction (drying at high temperatures) of biomass. Another plan is to start a DME-factory, using methanol as a basis for making DME as a biodiesel alternative. Production of 'green' formaldehyde - in use for the production of plywood is another idea.
 
Currently Econcern experiences credit shortage as a consequence of the credit crisis. But Paul Compagne is not too pessimistic. Another investor, a sustainable branche of the pension funds called Waterland, has taken over BioMCN's shares from Econcern. And Compagne is confident that investors can be found for further investments into the 'greening' of refinery activities. Although he expects this process to take five to ten years.
 
For now, his attention is focussed on starting up the plant in a fortnight and the official opening later this year, possibly by the Dutch ministers of environment and economic affairs.