Can biorefineries eliminate fossil fuels and petrochemicals?

Metsä Fibre Äänekoski

Source: © Metsä Fibre

Plans to develop the world’s largest vegetable oil refinery reveal diverging views on the sustainability, profitability and scale of plant-based supply chains, finds Andy Extance

Biorefineries are facilities that convert natural materials to fuels or chemicals. SGP Bioenergy’s one will repurpose existing bunker fuel oil terminals together with new facilities at opposite ends of the Panama Canal, in Colon and Balboa, eventually producing 180,000 barrels (29 million litres) of biofuel per day. It will buy crops grown by farmers under contract, requiring 1.5 million acres (0.6 million hectares) of land, according to estimates (for reference, there are about 23 million acres of farmland in the UK).

Others see the purpose of biorefineries differently. Decarbonising the chemical sector using carbon-neutral biomass feedstocks that sequester carbon dioxide as they grow during photosynthesis could be a realistic target. In this scenario, biorefineries primarily co-produce energy for their own use, or supply biomass-based energy for poor marginalised communities. There is always competition for how to use land and care is urged in growing plants specifically to produce fuel or energy.