Butane, propane and isobutene are also known as LPG (liquefied petroleum gases). They are currently extracted from natural gas or crude oil refining. In bottled form, they are used by 10 million, out of a total 18 million, French households who are not connected to the French natural gas network and there is currently no renewable source of butane. For this reason, converting biomass resources to isobutene presents an attractive opportunity to make bottled gas renewable, thereby helping to achieve the French target of 32 percent primary energy consumption from renewable energy sources by 2030.
In July 2020, CFBP and Global Bioenergies announced the start of a series of tests on a batch of isobutene produced by Global Bioenergies from renewable sources at a pilot project in Pomacle, France, focusing on compatibility with the supply chain and domestic appliances such as stoves. According to Joel Pedessac, CEO of the CFBP, the tests showed that renewable isobutene is certainly compatible with commercial butane. It should therefore be possible to produce increased amounts of renewable LPG, produced from renewable sources and feedstock materials, to deliver a long-term, sustainable, flexible, low carbon fuel.
REM talked to Nikos Xydas, Technical Director at the World LPG Association (WLPGA), to discuss these issues in greater depth.
First of all can you give me a bit of background about yourself and the company?
First, we’re the world LPG Association. We represent LPG worldwide, that is the entire supply chain, starting from producers down to users and passing from distributors and manufacturers. We have more than 300 members at the moment I believe, all over the world with various profiles. We are based in Paris and ? but also we have some people who work remotely from Australia, a colleague of mine. Myself, I’m the technical director of the association, and my technical role – I also have under my umbrella the renewable LPG fuels, our renewable profile, or bio-profile, together with many other things, such as the applications of LPG, but probably best to focus here on the bioenergy.
So can you tell me a bit more about bio LPG and how it’s produced.
First of all, we must all understand the terminology. We call it bio-LPG in Europe. In other parts of the world, especially in the US, they call it renewable LPG or renewable propane. More so than bio-LPG. In my view, renewable is the more appropriate term, because bio refers to biological feedstocks, and of course that would not include LPG which is made from electrolysis and so whether we call it bio or renewable, in the end it is the same thing, although I believe that at some point we will all move to calling it renewable LPG.
Whether it is fossil LPG, bio-LPG or renewable LPG, it is the same thing, the same product, the same chemical molecule, so there is no difference. It is just the origin that is different, and you may know already that it can have a refining origin, or it can have a natural gas origin. Today about 60 percent comes from natural gas.
So how is the renewable LPG made? There are many, many ways, there are many technologies that can lead to bio-LPG or renewable LPG. The most well-known process today is bio-refinement. Refining lipids for example. The majority, if not all, the buyers of the LPG that we have today, buy from the ADO process, the same process that produces biodiesel for example. LPG, as we know, can also be produced from fossil fuel refining, but if it is a bio-product, it is also from this same process. Bio-LPG is a product of biodiesel. This is one of the ways we can produce bio-LPG. There are many other ways it can be produced, through gasification and pyrolysis, from anaerobic digestion or conversion of biogas. It can be produced later on from power technologies and capture of CO2 and green hydrogen. In total, there are about seven or eight technologies that can lead to production of bio-LPG or renewable LPG. Of course, they are not all at the same level of maturity and so most of the production we have today comes from the ADO process.
What are the various feedstocks used?
On the feedstocks side, we have various lipids, vegetable oils and animal fats, we can have acids from alcohol, ethanol, biogas. We very much like the use of residual waste, which would otherwise remain unused, it would just go to the landfill site. So we would very much like to concentrate on this cellulosic, and it is very much a feedstock which I think has a big future and we expect significant quantities from this feedstock. Going a bit further away, we can have glycerine and sugars but there are really so many feedstocks that will be involved in the production of bio-LPG.
Can bio-LPG be used as a truly renewable fuel? Without having to be added as a drop-in to fossil fuel produced LPG?
Absolutely. First of all the notion of drop-in, in whichever way you use it, can be replaced with bio-LPG, without changing anything, without doing anything, it can be replaced with bio-LPG. If the user has a cylinder or bottle of LPG to use, which is very common because of barbecues for instance, they can get a bottle of bio-LPG and nothing will change. The equipment is operated in exactly the same way. With the other LPGs, we have, as we know, a hundred percent fossil fuel, say diesel, then we have 100 percent biofuel or renewable fuel. As with the gasoline for cars today, we can have, let’s say a 20 percent of Bio LPG in the product. Tomorrow we can have 30 percent or 50 percent. It depends, the market will evolve. The quantities will become larger in the market and of course the customer will have different expectations. We know very well that there are particular users in the industry that are very sensitive to the environment, and so they are prepared to really pay anything to have a hundred percent biofuel or bio-LPG, so it evolves, it is not the same everywhere and all the time.
What is it generally used for?
Well, as a drop-in fuel can be used for exactly the same thing that we use the fossil LPG for today. However, as it is always the case with biofuel, there are different incentives, regulatory incentives, and so the policymakers and regulators will provide much more incentives to producers for the use of bio-LPG for transport, for heating, for residential use, because this is where we want to decarbonise as fast as possible. We know that in many parts of the world, diesel boilers are being abandoned, so the regulators want to replace those boilers with more modern heating systems and environmentally friendly biofuels and biogas, and for electricity also, so this is what we are expecting, very much into transport and heating, residential, and especially in rural residential areas.
Where is the main demand coming from? I ask that because I noticed that is a strong impetus in France, where some people in rural areas are not connected to the gas grid.
I would say this is a push-pull situation. Absolutely, the demand for LPG is from rural areas yet and if we start comparing carbon indexes and carbon footprints, bio-LPG can reduce the carbon footprint of fossil LPG by maybe up to 80 percent. It depends very much on what feedstocks we use, what technologies we use, so significant reductions. With regard to countries and applications, that probably again depends on regulators and incentives and also on users in particular countries. It was clear some years back, when we were in discussions with our Nordic colleagues, in Sweden for example or in Norway, their consumers are very sensitive and really like buying renewable bio-LPG and getting rid of the pollution. This is not to the same degree in other countries in Europe, in the south, but the situation is changing all the time. The biggest demand at the moment is from the Nordic countries and also France and Germany.
The US is another pocket, I wouldn’t say polarised, although we all know that California for example is very different from the rest of the US. In California, the incentives and the demand for renewables is very high and actually a week or two weeks ago, I was hearing about their vision to go to completely 100 percent renewable propane by 2030. This is what they are advocating and so California is very different to the rest of the US, sometimes fairly well aligned with what we are doing here in Europe.
For us, the two driving entities today are California and Europe.
Where bio-LPG has been introduced, what kind of carbon or greenhouse gas emission savings can be made?
First, LPG and bio-LPG is exactly the same molecule so you would get the same quality as it burns the same way, so the carbon reductions come from the way it is made. Using a feedstock that is grown, it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and therefore, through this process, it can be subtracted from a carbon footprint, so it reduces the carbon footprint of LPG by 80 percent. It depends on what kind of feedstock we’re using, where it grows, also a renewable feedstock can be a crop but it can be residues of cooking oils for example, that we produce constantly from everyday life, which is collected and then refined and is therefore a renewable feedstock. We can also call municipal waste that is collected everywhere, instead of going to landfill, it goes to a plant to be processed. So bio-LPG is not preventing less carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere through its use or when it is fed into an engine or when using a barbecue, as it is the same quality, but it’s the production, very much this.
In what way can bio-LPG help to reduce someone’s fuel bill?
That is a very difficult question to answer because these technologies evolve continuously, for example it is the same with solar panels and with wind power. To begin with it is more expensive, in both production and with the technology, but the more they are developed, and the association is working a lot with technology developers in the US and also in Europe, the more they are developed the more economic they become because they are more efficient. Then at large scale, we have economies of scale so that in large quantities the cost will fall dramatically.
In February, we released a European report finding that there is a very good chance that by 2050 a hundred percent of the demand for LPG will be met by bio-LPG and this is from very reliable sources like the IEA, so the more we go in this direction, the more efficient it will become and so the cost will go down. Today though, anywhere, moving into biofuels and renewable technologies, the cost is always higher, the same is true with electric vehicles for example. So it needs a lot of initial incentives to enable it to get up to speed. The demand is there, because we demand more to protect the environment, but this protection does not come for free.
The LPG industry is very excited with what’s coming ahead, with all the prospects for bio, renewable LPG, and is doing its best to try and develop these new technologies. It is something that will take many years but we are very focused on it and we think bio-LPG will give a second life to what we know today with fossil LPG from natural gas sources or refining and it will enable a very easy transition to the# decarbonised or lower carbon world that we have ahead of us.
Bio-LPG deserves more attention from regulators and policymakers than is being given today, for whatever reason, so there’s a great future ahead and we in the industry are all committed to that future.
For additional information:
World Liquid Petroleum Gas Association (WLPGA)