Broadening horizons ahead for bioethanol

ST1 NORDIC OY / TEKIR OY / ANTTI RAATIKAINEI’

Bioethanol can be a significant fuel for the future – as long as the processes are fine-tuned to sufficient degree. St1 has been manufacturing advanced bioethanol from sawdust since late 2016 in Kajaani, Finland. It has been a learning experience, due to the fact that the process generates various sidestreams that must find appropriate uses in order for the concept to work. These fractions must find the right customer in the right market, or they end up being incinerated – and that makes poor sense from a business standpoint.

I’m strongly of the opinion that making bioethanol out of sawdust, can, indeed, be a profitable operation. This requires, however, that we are able to secure better uses for the current sidestreams.

The production target for the Kajaani operation is 10 million litres of bioethanol annually, but, as of yet, we have not been able to meet that target. There have been considerations that we could launch another bioethanol plant in Pietarsaari, Finland, but the time is not right yet. There are still things we want to do to streamline production at Kajaani, before we scale up in Finland.

From the perspective of a bioethanol manufacturer, there are also other types of question marks. One of these is the way bioethanol is being taxed by the State, in comparison to biogas. Bioethanol and biogas are manufactured out of the very same fractions, but the tax burden lands solely on bioethanol. This makes very little sense to anyone. However, given time, we are expecting that this imbalance will be rectified.

The global bioethanol market is set to expand as its usage in cars keeps broadening. While your average (gasoline) fuel may include 5 to 10 percent of bioethanol, it’s no secret that the new breed of automobiles can handle up to 20% bioethanol. Already, in the US, the bioethanol content for new cars is 15% and I’m sure that Europe and the rest of the world will soon follow.

Paving the way for this transition, it is important to keep developing our 2G biofuels such as sawdust, wood chip and bark. The industry is putting a lot of effort into this work and I’m confident that we will continue to see great results down the road.

In addition to Finland, we are pursuing green fuels elsewhere, too. St1 is building a new hydrogen manufacturing unit in Gothenburg, Sweden, thus enabling the local St1 Refinery to start the production of renewable diesel in late 2021 / early 2022.

St1 has also built a bioethanol pilot plant at Ubon Bio Ethanol Ltd’s starch and ethanol plant site in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. In this pilot, St1 is using cassava pulp as feedstock. The current challenge is finding the appropriate local partners for the concept to work. By the end of the year, we will have a ‘go/no go’ on how to proceed post-pilot.

Mika Anttonen

The writer is the founder and main owner of ST1