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Automation and the Renewable Fuel Transition

by , , | Dec 12, 2022 | Downstream Hydrocarbons, Sustainable Energy

Jim Cahill

Jim Cahill

Chief Blogger, Social Marketing Leader

RefiningBiofuels are part of the mix to increase the supply of renewable fuels in the global energy mix. In a Hydrocarbon Processing article, Accelerating the transition to renewable fuels, Emerson’s Marcelo Carugo and Julie Valentine share how these renewable fuels can “…create millions of jobs, spur rapid growth and drive technological innovation.”

They open the article by noting that today’s:

…new green fuels are sourced from agricultural waste and crops that are chemically identical to traditional fossil fuel-based products; however, they provide better performance with a smaller carbon footprint.

Automation plays a significant role in this trend.

Advances in automation technologies make it more feasible to convert previously unusable raw materials (e.g., switchgrass and used cooking grease) into feedstocks that can be processed into high-quality combustible fuels that compete with fossil-based products like jet fuel and automotive gasoline—as well as, increasingly, electric power and natural gas.

Marcelo and Julie cite a BP 2020 Energy Outlook study:

If the 2050 net-zero goal is met, then the share of hydrocarbons in primary energy streams could drop from around 85% in 2018 to between 20%–70%, with the share of renewable energy increasing to between 20%–60%.

Several actions are driving this shift.

The combination of government policies, corporate initiatives and recent breakthroughs in automation technology have turned more sustainable renewable fuels like green diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) into the fastest-growing alternative energy streams in the market. SAF, which produces up to 70% less carbon than fossil fuels, could effectively bridge current renewable technologies with future hybrid, electric or hydrogen-powered engine designs.

Automation investments by global refiners will play a prominent role in these changes.

Traditional level and flow measurement technologies are impacted by changing fluid properties and ambient conditions, which are unavoidable when processing animal fats, corn oil, recycled cooking oil or vegetable oil. Smart flow metering systems and level instrumentation that can handle different fluid properties in a wider range of environments make it easier to dependably meter fluid transfers and to report receipts, usage and shipments.

Optimizing yield and asset health in new processes. Average yields from the second-generation renewable diesel process depend on many operating factors. Having precise control over the complex processes inside a plant’s reactors is key for avoiding over-cracking products and for meeting quality and emissions standards. Control directly affects reactor catalyst life, which is a major cost concern. Analytics software can identify optimum operating conditions for each feedstock type, and can also calculate ideal production targets and provide early warnings to potential issues so that operators can maximize diesel yield while also reducing waste disposal and streamlining maintenance.

Always a priority, equipment reliability is even more critical when processing highly corrosive biomass feedstocks. Asset health monitoring solutions (e.g., corrosion sensors installed on critical vessels) are more common, but corrosion data can be difficult to interpret and act upon. Wireless ultrasonic sensors with data historian software extend vital equipment life by enabling proactive maintenance well before workers’ security lapses and production throughput can suffer from safety incidents and unplanned downtime.

Read the article for more on reporting, regulations, sustainability initiatives, and important considerations for refiners as they navigate these changes. Visit the Refining industry section on Emerson.com for more on the technology and solutions to help drive these transformative changes.

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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.