Ethanol and biodiesel are two of the fuel options energy giant, Shell is looking at for the future and the firm is bringing some rigour to the investigation.
Shell claims to be the biggest biofuels distributor in the world, shifting around 3bn litres of bioethanol and other biofuels in 2005, equivalent to the total amount of gasoline consumed in the UK that year.
So where’s Shell making its bets? Conversations at yesterday’s press-only fuel open-day revolved around biofuels for sure, but the big thrust in the short term is into gas-to-liquids. This is a technology that can turn methane gas into diesel. Not as green as existing cracking processes, it uses more energy, but the fuel is distinctly cleaner, Shell says. The technology is not quite a cinch, but at 50 years old, (it was developed by the Germans during WW2) it is pretty well understood. Also diesel made this way can be a direct, drop in replacement for conventionally refined diesel. So there are no worries about compatibility. There is no need to develop new engines to accommodate them.
Why gas-to-liquids and not groves of Jatropha, or fields of cassava as far as the eye can see? Because biofuels lovers,
I can I hear you yelling, “they would say that, you oaf! They would.”
Of course they would but, it’s worth listening to them. Shell, and companies like Shell, are the gatekeepers to the one thing the biofuels industries will need: Customers. They have infrastructure to make and distribute fuels efficiently. The company also understands integration and the money to be made along a product chain from the well to the wheel. We can all learn from them. So, what are their criteria for biofuels to succeed? Paul Snaith, vice president downstream marketing, Shell Global Solutions says biofuel should only be used if they
1 Make Economic sense
2 Are socially and ecologically sustainable
3 Are technologically sound.
That makes a lot of sense to me. And should be taken on board by the biofuels industries, investors and people backing projects when they make their investment or policy decisions.
The day’s focus in biofuels was on Shell’s partnerships with in and Iogen. The recent hook up with Codexis was described as too long-range for Mondahy’s discussions. I’m not a conspirasist, but I think that the ink dried on that deal too recently for the cautious employees of the cautious mollusc to talk too freely.
Both of these projects have one thing in common, they are pretty close to producing ethanol or biodiesel, said Lionel Clarke, technology manager, strategic research, fuels technology group at Shell Global Solutions.
The Iogen cooperation is likely to result in a 150,000 to 200,000 tonne/year bioethanol plant based around using corn stover from a catchment of about 50 square miles. This should be sustainable. No location was given for this, but the plant should be completed by the end of 2007.
Shell and Choven are likely to build a demonstration plant for to gassify woodchips and produce biofuels by the end of next year too.
Shell has decided to ‘learn by doing’ says Clarke. That I like. Not waiting to develop the ideal technical solution. Refine your answer as you go.
What else did I like about yesterday? Real clarity and honesty in one area, as Snaith said: Shell wants to make money from energy supply in the future and is trying to secure that future. It is placing bets in areas that could ‘compete with gasoline and diesel’ and it wants to operate ‘areas that don’t need to be propped up with subsidies.’ Shell also highlighted the rich, long-term relationships that are needed with engine producers if they have developed. If there is one thing engine builders want it is a long term relationship. No one night stands for them.
Its not fair to say that Shell is betting the farm on biofuels, because it isn’t. We heard about hydrogen and GTL, but the firm is interested in ethanol and biodiesel and if an organisation this size is interested, then you’d be daft not to be yourself.