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Biodiesel Production From Non-Edible Plant Oils: A Big, Bold Breakthrough

a photo showing an image of sawgrass and an image of a beaker of oil above a lawn clip art in relation to the topic of biodiesel production from non-edible plant oils

ExxonMobil is investing in the production of biodiesel production from non-edible plant oils. Unlike traditional plant sources, the company is going into a new fermentation technology which uses non-traditional sources of sugar-rich plants. This technology is pioneered by Renewable Energy Group (REG). Exxon and REG are continuing a joint research program which has demonstrated REG’s patented technology for the production of biodiesel. Initially, the two companies signed an agreement at the start of 2016 to research on REG Life Sciences fermentation technology that uses different types of sugar-rich non-edible plants.

The emphasis on non-edible plants is due to the possible overuse of edible crops for sugar, alcohol and biodiesel production. Producing these plants for energy use would deprive their use as food crops. The problem of increasing production for fuel is that it will eat up the same sources as the food supply. With the increase in pressure to produce more food, it is important to use some other plant or root crop that is not used as food. Changing the plant source to non-edible biomass sources would free up the traditional biodiesel sources for food production.

Why Biodiesel Matters

The traditional biodiesel production used cellulosic sugars to produce ethanol usually via a yeast-based fermentation process. REG Life Sciences used a more concentrated fermentation from a highly concentrated sugar plant source. However, there are issues with different sources, each with their own impurities such as acid and ash content. The study has also shown that the technology produces biodiesel, which achieves significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with traditional diesel fuel. Biodiesel production from non-edible plant oils plus reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a win-win combination for REG.

There are different categories of biodiesel based on the purity or the percentage of alcohol in the fuel mix:

  • B5 biodiesel is 5 percent plant-based and 95 percent diesel.
  • B20 is 20 percent plant-based and 80 percent diesel.
  • B100 is neat biodiesel without any mineral diesel component.

In cold weather, B5 biodiesel has the same performance as No. 2 diesel. Most car and truck manufacturers recommend B5 up to B20 biodiesel. It should be noted that using the wrong or even higher levels of biodiesel may void a vehicle’s warranty.

New Technology: Biodiesel Production from Non-Edible Plant Oils

The traditional method of producing alcohol from food crops use microbes in a fermentation process which takes some time to occur. REG developed and patented a technology that still uses microbes, which in turn converts sugars to alcohol faster using a one-step fermentation process. The breakthrough technology on biodiesel production from non-edible plant oils has big implications for biodiesel production using cellulosic materials.

Notably, recent studies show that fossil fuel-based transportation requirements are growing faster than the growth of new renewable energy sources. This case means that even as there are more solar, wind, wave and tidal technologies that come online, the demand for fuel is greater than the new supply of energy. That implies that there is still a large demand for fossil fuels like diesel. Transportation-related energy’s global demand is forecasted to grow by 25 percent up to 2040. To lower emissions, and lower the strain on pure diesel, it is vital that there is a significant reduction in GHG emissions with the use of biodiesel.

Exxon has other partnerships which would help decrease the amount of GHG. Indeed, the use of non-food sources for biodiesel is a big step forward in fuel sufficiency as well as for food crop production.

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