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Developing a Biofuel Future

“The long-term future of the heating oil industry depends on the development of a renewable liquid fuel,” declared the program for the inaugural Northern New England Energy Conference, where John Huber, president of NORA, delivered an update on a biofuel project.

Years ago, a patented process was developed to transform cellulosic material such as wood waste into a liquid for use in heating oil, but it has been used to produce only small volumes, Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance, told an audience at the conference.

Now an effort is underway to arrange a field test of the liquid, possibly in heating equipment in the households of service technicians who would be well-qualified to monitor the equipment and provide reports, said Jamie Py, president and CEO of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. A field test could last through one heating season, possibly two, Py said.

Biofine Technology in Framingham, Mass., said it converts cellulose into levulinic acid, which then can easily be converted to ethyl levulinate—the liquid fuel. Biofine described the process in a presentation it prepared for the Northern New England conference.

A pilot plant at the University of Maine’s Technology Research Center, part of the university’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute in Old Town, Maine, can process up to a ton a day of wood fiber to make the levulinic acid for conversion to ethyl levulinate, and to make other biofuels and biochemicals, The Portland Press-Herald reported in May. The pilot plant was undergoing testing to determine whether it could operate on a commercial scale, the Press-Herald reported.

The pilot plant is a partnership between Biofine and the University of Maine. “The biggest obstacle now is financing,” Stephen Fitzpatrick, president of Biofine Technology LLC, told The Press Herald, referring to potential commercial production.

Maine is considered a suitable setting for production of the renewable liquid for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that paper mills in the state produce wood waste, the cellulosic material that can be used as the feedstock for the liquid fuel.

“Developing a fuel like this is obviously multi-years out,” Huber observed during an interview after the conference. There are many questions about using cellulosic waste to make renewable liquid, Huber said, including: “Is this fuel usable in our product? How would it interrelate with the heating oil? How would it relate with the biodiesel?” Another question is how the liquid might interact with copper, steel and brass—materials in oil-fired heating equipment.

Huber said Dr. Thomas Butcher, director of the NORA Research & Education Center in Plainview, N.Y., is conducting testing of materials to try to answer such questions.—Stephen Bennett

 

Stephen Bennett is the editor of Fuel Oil News.

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