Singapore strives to lead next round of biofuels race
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Published: October 29, 2007
SINGAPORE: Second-generation biofuels, made from products like waste
from agriculture and forestry, may not yet be a commercial reality, but
that is not preventing Singapore from trying to position itself to
become a major processing and trading hub in Asia for new clean energies.
"We feel that if we're going to focus on a sustainable type of activity
we need to look beyond first-generation biofuels: Those made from food
crops," Julian Ho, executive director for energy, chemical and
engineering services at Singapore's Economic Development Board, said.
Singapore does not believe that diverting food crops to create fuels
will be sustainable over the long term, Ho said. "Right now, everybody
in the region seems to focus more on first-generation biofuels, but what
we really want is to be the leading place for second-generation biofuels
Although definitions vary, first-generation biofuels are generally
regarded as those made from food crops like sugar cane, corn and palm
oil, and are used commercially as ethanol and bio-esters. Up to 10
percent of ethanol can be blended with standard fuel in the United
States, and up to 5 percent in Europe, while bio-esters can be mixed
Second-generation biofuels are those made from nonfood feedstocks, like
jatropha, wood chips, and cellulose. Using gasification technology,
clean fuels can be produced for pure use, unblended with hydrocarbons.
If used at 100 percent concentration, second-generation biofuels could
reduce production-to-driving carbon dioxide production by up to 90
percent, according to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been researching
second-generation fuel development since 2002.
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So far, however, only a handful of international companies have succeed
in developing the technologies needed for second-generation biofuel
production, and their commercial viability remains to be proven.
Among the leaders in the development effort, Iogen, a Canadian company
in which Shell has a stake, has developed a processing technology that
uses enzymes to make cellulose-based ethanol from straw. But Iogen has
yet to build a commercial cellulose ethanol plant.
Choren Industries, in Germany, is scheduled to bring a first
industrial-scale plant into production in mid-2008 that will convert
biomass to liquid fuel. The plant, in Freiberg, will use gasification
technology to convert a woody feedstock into high-quality synthetic fuel.
In Finland, Neste Oil, a refining and marketing company that focuses on
producing clean transport fuels, inaugurated a first biodiesel
production line at its Porvoo refinery on May 31. The €100 million, or
$140 million, plant is now running at its normal capacity of 170,000
tons a year following a start-up period of several months, said Sami
Oja, Neste's manager for marketing and sales.
Ho, of Singapore's Economic Development Board, said that while the
industrialization of second-generation biofuel was still at a very early
stage, it had growth potential. "And while first-generation biofuel is a
resource play, second-generation biofuel is a technology play and
technology is what Singapore prides itself at being good at."
Moving into biofuel is a natural extension for the island state.
Although it has no oil sources, it is already the world's third-largest
refining center and a major petrochemicals hub, with the oil industry
accounting for 5 percent of its GDP. "Our location in a resource rich
region also gives us easy access to raw materials," Ho said.
Singapore has yet to announce a major second-generation biofuel project.
"We're talking to various companies and we hope to have a significant
announcement in the next six months," Ho said. But first-generation
biodiesel manufacturing is already under way.
Continental BioEnergy, a Singapore company, opened a biodiesel plant in
September 2006, with production capacity of 150,000 tons a year, while
Peter Cremer, a German company based in Hamburg, is building a Singapore
plant with planned annual output of 200,000 tons. Construction should be
completed early next year.
Both sites will convert palm oil, drawing on supplies from neighboring
Malaysia and Indonesia, which together produce 85 percent of global palm
Natural Fuel, a renewable-energy company in Perth, Western Australia,
has also chosen Singapore for a $130 million, state-of-the-art biodiesel
production refinery, which is expected to be the largest such facility
in the world when production begins in the first quarter of 2008. The
refinery's three units will each produce 200,000 tons a year, initially
from palm oil and soya oil. Jatropha could be added when sufficient
supplies are available, a spokeswoman for the company said.
Production from the plant is destined to be sold initially in the United
States and Europe, with Asian markets developing progressively as
mandatory blending regulations in the region start to kick in.
"Singapore made a lot of sense when we were looking for a development
site," said Larry Tan, chief executive of the company's local unit,
Natural Fuel Singapore. "Biodiesel is best when it is blended with
petroleum diesel so it makes good economic sense for the company to
build its plants near or within major oil trading centers with a
well-established logistics infrastructure."
Biodiesel production in Singapore could exceed a million tons a year by
2010, and reach three million tons by 2015, S. Iswaran, the minister of
state for trade and industry, forecast recently.
To remain competitive, the government in May committed to spending 350
million Singapore dollars, or $240 million, in the next five years to
help make Singapore a world leader in clean energy production, including
both solar power - the government's main focus - and biofuels. Singapore
intends to market itself as a research and development center, a global
testing ground and a site for early adoption of clean energy solutions.
Nine industry players, including DaimlerChrysler and Shell Eastern
Petroleum, have already started a Singapore biodiesel testing project
for the evaluation of biodiesel in modern diesel-powered cars. The
project aims to improve the use of methyl esters from palm oil in motor
fuels in Southeast Asian climates.
Meanwhile, Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, a nonprofit bio-research
organization linked to two local universities, is exploring the
molecular enhancement of second-generation biofuels, and the Singapore
Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences is carrying out research
and development in areas like lubricants, process optimization and
catalyst development for clean fuel.
"We are investigating improved ways of gasification of biomass,
developing improved catalysts for the Fischer-Tropsch process, but also
looking at the conversion of syngas to chemicals as well as fuels," said
Keith Carpenter, executive director of the institute.
The Fischer-Tropsch process is a chemical reaction in which carbon
monoxide and hydrogen are converted into liquid hydrocarbons. Syngas is
"We are also investigating the production of biogas from biomass waste
and the subsequent conversion to chemicals, and the conversion of the
glycerol byproduct to other chemicals," Carpenter said."
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