Trends, Challenges and Solutions in Biofuels and Biomaterials Podcast

Sustainability & Decarbonization Podcast--Biofuels & BiomaterialsIn order to strike a fine balance between expanding global energy consumption and reducing GHG emissions, alternative fuels and materials, also known as Biofuels, Biomaterials, and Biochemicals, are gaining increased attention from worldwide leaders, including AP.

As a part of our Asia-Pacific Sustainability & Decarbonization podcast series, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Emerson’s Sanjay Thakker on the trends, challenges, and solutions in the Biofuels & Biomaterials sector to achieve circular economy goals.

Listen to the podcast and visit the Renewable Biofuels and Sustainability & Decarbonization sections on for more on the technologies and solutions to help advance these production processes. You can also connect and interact with an Emerson Asia-Pacific sustainability & decarbonization expert in your area.


Jim: Hi everyone. This is Jim Cahill with another “Emerson Automation Experts” podcast. We continue our Asia-Pacific Sustainability & Decarbonization podcast series with a closer look at the fast-growing Biofuels & Biomaterials sector, as it has a growing role in the energy & chemical mix in this region. I am joined today by Emerson’s Sanjay Thakker to discuss all about Biofuels & Biochemicals.

Jim: Sanjay, thank you for joining!

Sanjay: Hello, Jim. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of the show.

Jim: It’s wonderful to have you here with us, Sanjay. Let’s start by asking you to tell our listeners about your background and how you got to where you are now.

Sanjay: Thanks Jim. Well, I completed my bachelor’s degree in Instrumentation from India in 91. After graduating I joined India’s leading fuel manufacturer & retailer, Indian Oil Corporation. Worked here for more than two decades in refining & petrochemicals operations. Initial refineries were very simple with crude distillation & downstream fluid catalytic cracking, but big energy guzzlers & highly polluting. Later in mid-90’s global leaders started working on environmental concerns & refineries were added with fuel quality improvement units, viz isomerization & diesel hydrotreater. Later Natural gas joined energy basket & became the natural choice for industries leading to glut in Naphtha production. Earlier naphtha was feedstock to fertilizers, but later it was replaced with NG & refineries were compelled to enter more energy intensive petrochemicals production which by then was finding increased application in downstream polymers. Working in all these units in various roles led me to think about how polluting our industries are. After working so many years in fossil fuel related industry, I can appreciate the tremendous impact biofuels & materials is going to make in the time to come. Also, I noticed a very significant global shift by all leading Oil & Gas industry giants, to focus on projects that support sustainability and decarbonization. I joined Emerson in 2019 to support refinery & petrochemicals business in India. Emerson team is also committed to global S&D efforts & my natural choice was Biofuels & Biomaterials. I support the Sustainability & Decarbonization business for Emerson Automation Solutions in the Asia Pacific region. So, my role aligns well with my passion in energy space & and Emerson’s purpose, to help customers make measurable progress towards their Net zero targets.

Jim: That’s great Sanjay. So, we are talking today about Biofuels & Biomaterials, and there seems to be a lot of talk about changing global energy mix & circular economy. Since we will be talking about wide ranging industry applications, perhaps you can start our discussion off first with biofuels by just explaining what are biofuels.

Sanjay: Sure Jim. In simple terms, biofuel is a fuel that is not derived from fossil fuels & is rather produced from biomass. Since biomass can be used as a fuel directly like say wood logs, some people use the words biomass and biofuel interchangeably. However, in industry parlance, the word biofuel usually refers to liquid or gaseous fuels, used for transportation or other industrial energy usage.

Biofuel can be produced from plants or from agricultural, domestic or industrial biowaste. The two most common liquid biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel. Others include renewable heating oil, renewable jet fuel, also known as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) or alternative jet fuel, renewable naphtha, renewable gasoline, and other emerging biofuels that are in various stages of development and commercialization.

Gaseous fuels that may be compressed for use as a gaseous biofuel include compressed biogas (CBG) or renewable natural gas (RNG). Waste / Bio-mass sources like agricultural residue, cattle dung, sugarcane press mud, municipal solid waste and sewage treatment plant waste, etc. produce biogas through the process of anaerobic decomposition. The biogas is then purified to remove hydrogen sulphide (H2S), carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor and lastly compressed as Compressed Biogas (CBG). CBG has calorific value and other properties like CNG and hence can be utilized as green renewable fuel. Thus, it can replace CNG in automotive, industrial and commercial areas.

Jim: That’s good to know Sanjay, so it’s all about waste to energy! These days, we hear a lot of noise around bioethanol, biodiesel etc., tell us something more about all this.

Sanjay: Sure Jim, let’s talk more about these next gen fuels. Bioethanol, which is a renewable fuel can be made from various plant materials. Most ethanol is made from plant starches and sugars, but technologies today allow for the use of cellulose and hemicellulose, the non-edible fibrous material that constitutes the bulk of plant matter.

The common method for converting biomass into ethanol is called fermentation. During fermentation, microorganisms (e.g., bacteria and yeast) metabolize plant sugars and produce ethanol.

Basically, Ethanol is an alcohol used as a blending agent with gasoline to increase octane and cut down carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions.

The most common blend of ethanol is referred as E10, E15 or E20, where the numerical number is basically referring to the percentage of ethanol in petro-gasoline. When we say E10, it refers to 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline and is generally approved for use in most conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Some countries like India are moving towards E20. Newer vehicles, called flexible fuel vehicles, are being designed to run on higher gasoline-ethanol blend.

When we talk of Biodiesel, it’s a liquid fuel produced from renewable sources, such as new and used vegetable oils and animal fats and is a cleaner-burning replacement for petroleum-based diesel fuel. Biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable and is produced by combining alcohol with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking oil.

Like petroleum-derived diesel, biodiesel is used to fuel compression-ignition (diesel) engines. Biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel in any percentage, depending on geography, season & application. While the most common blend, we see in most countries is B20, which is a blend containing 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel. Maximum we see Indonesia moving to B40 blend.

SAFs are jet fuels that are certified for use in commercial jet aircraft and that meet GHG and other sustainability criteria, and are also made from raw materials other than fossil fuels, such as wastes and agricultural residues.

USA is the largest producer of bioethanol, while EU is the largest producer of biodiesel & RNG or CBG, but AP is fast catching up & large capacities are being set-up for domestic consumption as well as export. As per IEA estimates, Asian biofuel production may surpass that of Europe by 2026.

Jim: Sanjay, biodiesel & renewable diesel terms are interchangeably used, tell us something more about the two.

Sanjay: Let’s understand the difference between renewable diesel (also known as R99) and biodiesel. Biodiesel, also called fatty acid methyl ester (FAME), and renewable diesel, also known as hydrogenated vegetable oil, (HVO), can both be blended with diesel fuel. While, Renewable diesel has the same chemical composition as fossil diesel and so is fully compatible with existing diesel engines, Biodiesel has a different chemical composition as compared to fossil diesel and so blending is limited. Europe, for example, limits blends to 7%.

While renewable diesel and biodiesel are made from the same organic waste streams – including animal and seed fats – there are significant differences between the two products, which primarily comes from the way it has been produced. Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification. This process converts the biomass oils into fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) and glycerine. On the other hand, renewable diesel is chemically made through hydro processing, using hydrogen under high temperature & pressure, same as petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel is generally referred to a blend than a traditional fuel. In the same sense that ethanol is blended with gasoline, biodiesel is a blend of Petro-diesel and biofuel. It’s there to help reduce fossil fuel content therefore reducing carbon emission

Jim: Quite interesting Sanjay! So, can we use any available renewable or biodiesel in our current vehicles, without any modification in the engines or are there any challenges in large-scale adoption of biodiesel?

Sanjay: Let’s try to understand more Jim! While renewable diesel is for all intents and purposes, a pure diesel fuel & can be dropped directly into current diesel engine, it functions identical to fossil fuel, with lower carbon emissions and environmental impacts, yet without any performance or maintenance impact. Renewable diesel greatly improves greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent while retaining all the power of standard diesel. The carbon intensity of renewable diesel is approximately 60 percent less than petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel, on the other hand comes with some challenges, especially when it comes to storage conditions. Biodiesel must be stored at right temperature range & may pose some challenge in cold weather conditions. If it is too warm, it could grow mold, if it gets too cold, it may gel up. Biodiesel can also thicken to a gel if it is exposed to oxygen for too long & can also lead to more deposits in a fuel tank and pipes, which may call for more frequent replacement of fuel filters. In technical terms, both cetane & cloud points are compromised to some extant in biodiesel.

To sum up, although both fuels are made from similar materials, the difference between the two comes from how they are manufactured, but both helps in reducing greenhouse gas emissions & Government policies are the principal driver of the growing production capacities.

Jim: So, you mentioned governments are recognizing the potential for Biofuels, can you elaborate on what countries in Asia are communicating their strategies for biofuels & how Emerson is helping them in meeting their goals?

Sanjay: You’re touching a very relevant point, Jim. Improved policies and COP26 climate goals are set to propel renewable fuels growth to new heights. Government mandates, incentives, and standards to lower the carbon intensity of fuel combined with consumer demands for meaningful action on climate change has accelerated the demand for biofuels. IEA estimates that, Asia will account for almost 30% of new production capacities coming up in next 5 years. This is mainly due to strong domestic policies, growing liquid fuel demand and export-driven production. Recent Indian ethanol policies and blending targets for biodiesel in Indonesia and Malaysia are responsible for most of the growth in Asia. India is set to become the third largest market for ethanol demand worldwide by 2026. Although biofuels and bioenergy received scant attention in China’s recent Five-Year Plan, the country plans to peak emissions before 2030. As part of that plan, China plans to vigorously promote alternatives like advanced liquid biofuels and SAF & biofuels will play an important role in achieving emission reductions in China.

Another driving point to changing global energy mix is the post corona world order & now emerging geopolitical equations, largely due to the conflict in Europe, driving governments working on reduced dependence on fossil fuels which are largely controlled by handful of countries. Added to this, record high prices of fossil fuels are helping in making renewable fuels more viable.

Within Asia, due to huge push by government of India, India is emerging as hub for Bio Ethanol & Biogas. Recently a National Oil Company, Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) has joined hands with two Finnish companies viz M/s Fortum and M/s Chempolis to make a strategic entry into the field of producing ethanol, from cellulosic feedstock ‘Bamboo’ which is available in abundance locally. The Bio refinery being setup will not only produce bio ethanol but other chemicals like Acetic Acid, Furfural & Furfuryl Alcohol. Emerson is the lead technology supplier for India’s first cellulosic feedstock-based Bio-Refinery. India’s largest National Oil companies IOCL is setting up a CBG plant in Gorakhpur & here again, Emerson is the lead Instrumentation technology supplier. Almost all National oil companies are establishing CBG plants & are promoting private sector investment with assured buyback of products.

Neste of Singapore is another hub of renewable production. Neste’s renewable and circular solutions are produced by renewable raw materials, the majority are wastes and residues such as used cooking oil and waste animal fat & Emerson is proud solution partner.

To summarize, major AP countries have demonstrated an understanding of the current situation and opportunity it provides of shifting global energy transition and are aligning their strategies around the same.

Jim: It is clear from what you outlined that biofuel is going to assume significant importance in changing energy mix scenario. Tell us something about changing biochemicals or biomaterials sector, and what opportunities & challenges are you seeing in the Asia region?

Sanjay: Yes Jim, let’s focus on biochemicals, which presents another exciting opportunity to replace fossil fuels. Given the tremendous focus on actions to mitigate climate change, steps are being taken to move from today’s fossil-based economy to a more sustainable economy based on renewable materials and recycling. The main driver for transition to a bio-based circular economy is the global issue of climate change and the need to reduce GHG emissions.

The desire of many countries to reduce an over dependency on fossil fuel imports by diversifying their energy sources is another reason driving the need to develop an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable circular global economy

To become truly sustainable and circular, industry is increasingly viewing chemical and polymer production from renewable resources as well as chemical recycling as the future modus operandi. Since plastics has become an integral part of economy, another area where lot of work is happening is bio-degradable plastics. Industry is working on both bio-degradable plastics from fossil-based chemicals and from renewable resources.

Within Asia, China is setting up large capacities to produce plastics which are bio degradable in nature from fossil fuel based resources like PBAT (polybutylene adipate-co-terephthalate), which is mainly derived from esterification & polycondensation of BDO (butanediol), PTA (Purified Terephthalic Acid) & AA (Adipic acid).

Thailand is making major progress in renewable bio-based plastics, most notably cassava and sugarcane. As it contains glucose, sugarcane is highly useful raw ingredient for bio-based products. As opposed to other starch-based feedstock, Glucose requires no additional processing before use in biochemical and bioplastic production, thus shortening the conversion process and decreasing production costs. In Thailand, Purac (Thailand), from Corbion Purac is producing lactic acid which is the most vital biochemical for bioplastic industry production. Total Corbion is another company in Thailand focusing to manufacture polylactic polymer (PLA), another bioplastic material. PTT MCC is a joint venture between PTT Thailand and Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation (MCC) installed first Polybutylene Succinate (PBS) plant which is another bio plastic plant in Thailand.

To sum up both fossil based, as well as renewable material based bioplastics are gaining significance in Asia pacific.

Another important aspect of circular economy is plastics recycling, where Purecycle & Mura technology are key Technology providers. Both Japan & Korea are setting up facilities for plastics recycling. Emerson is again Key partner to provide technology solutions to overcome the challenges posed by these new technologies. In fact, Emerson is official partner for Born Digital-Smart Plant Program with Purecycle technology.

So, several challenges do exist Jim but with all of them, solutions are being developed and here at Emerson we certainly see ourselves as partners to finding those solutions to overcome them & make this world more sustainable.

Jim: Sanjay, I want to thank you so much for joining us and sharing your expertise with our listeners. I’ll add links to the transcript and here at the end to the Renewable Biofuels section and Sustainability & Decarbonization web pages, as well as the contact details for Sustainability & Decarbonization experts in the Asia-Pacific region.

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