Hummingbird® propels biofuel technology into the 21st century (Day 272)

hummingbirdMany people share my passion for a world of cleaner transport. So I am excited by the amount of progress that has been made towards lower-emission fuels, especially in the domain of biofuels – fuels made from plants, other vegetable- and animal-derived materials.

In fact, the International Energy Agency‘s (IEA) technology roadmap for biofuels in transport suggests that, by 2050, biofuels could provide over a quarter of the world’s total transport fuel, and avoid around 2 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Perhaps less obvious is the spread of bioplastics – plastics made from vegetable fats and oils, corn starch and other biomass sources – in the form of food and other packaging, crockery, cutlery, straws and more.

Bioplastics have non-disposable uses such as mobile phone casings, car interiors, and even medical devices. This is a fast growing market; I recently read a forecast predicting a doubling in biodegradable plastics alone from around UK£3.6 billion in 2015 to UK£8.2 billion in 2025.

BP logo - BP Hummingbird...For me, the IChemE global award-winning BP Hummingbird® project to develop a catalyst and process for converting bio-ethanol to ethylene is an excellent example of the ground-breaking chemical engineering that is bringing this cleaner, more cost-effective technology ever closer.

The BP Hummingbird® project won the IChemE global award for bioprocessing in November 2014, see this video to learn more about their win:

Essentially, the BP Hummingbird® project (based at the BP Hull Research and Technology Centre, UK) provides an advantaged route for dehydrating bio-ethanol to bio-ethylene.

But the development project spanned the whole gamut from initial concept through to licencing offer. It involved a multi-disciplinary team of in-house experts in catalyst development, flowsheeting and design. And leading academics and specialists from outside the company were regularly consulted to help ensure the development was robust.

The big step forward by Hummingbird® is away from first-generation ethanol hydration technologies, which use alumina-based catalysts, to a next-generation process with a proprietary catalyst. This can achieve overall process selectivity for ethylene well over 99%, using milder temperatures.

With a Hummingbird® licence, you get more ethylene for your ethanol. But the process also offers simplified operations, without the need for ethane/ethylene splitters, or CO and CO2 removal. This offers an estimated reduction of 3.7 kg of CO2 per kilogramme of ethylene produced when compared with conventional naphtha cracking.

The project is clever in the way it draws commercial viability by capitalising on consumers’ growing interest in renewable materials; from recycled fizzy drink bottles to supermarket shopping bags and beyond.

At the same time, safety and environmental performance have been kept front and centre as Hummingbird® has made its way from R&D, to demonstration, to commercial readiness.

BP Hummingbird IChemE Awards Image

Photo Credit| BP
BP Hummingbird® IChemE Awards Image

As in every development project on this scale, there were some fairly substantial challenges along the way. The team was investigating novel operation conditions while trying to minimise operational downtime – which they did using enhanced simulations and modelling.

I would like to congratulate the whole Hummingbird® team on winning IChemE’s global award for bioprocessing and look forward to seeing where their work takes us in the future.

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High selectivity, lower costs, simpler operations, lower emissions – ‘perfect storm’, anyone?

IChemE Awards 2015