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First microbial oil from waste plant launches

The first plant in Europe to produce microbial oil from waste to make renewable fuel has opened.

The €8 (£6.4m) million pilot facility in Porvoo, Finland, built by Neste Oil, uses industrial and agricultural residues such as straw to produce microbial oil for use in making renewable diesel. The plant will test how various agricultural and forest industry residues can be converted into oil using microbes.

Neste Oil, a refining company which supplies renewable diesel, said it hoped to be producing microbial oil on an industrial scale, and that microbial oil could enter commercial production by 2015.

The technology works by using microbes to break down waste and residues into sugars to grow and produce oil.

Neste Oil’s senior vice president of technology, Lars Peter Lindfors, said that the opening was a major step towards its goal of increasing the use of waste and residues to produce its NExBTL renewable diesel.

He said: “Agriculture in Finland and elsewhere, for example, produces large quantities of straw, but little of this straw is put to effective use. Thanks to the technology that we have developed, it will be possible to process straw into a feedstock for premium-quality renewable diesel in the future.

The plant’s microbial technology focuses on extracting oil from products that are not food sources, as opposed to biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol which use crops as a feed source. With microbial oil extraction, micro-organisms are “fed” waste, making them grow and produce oil which can then be used to make biofuel.

The Renewable Energy Association said that the association welcomed attempts to develop the technology, which had a lot of potential.

Colin Webb, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Manchester, who is carrying out research into microbial oil techonologies, agreed.

 “We have always known that micro-organisms produce oil but the technology to grow and extract this has never really been developed,” he said. “The real beauty of microbial oil is that it can be produced from waste, including wood, paper and potentially household rubbish. Of all the methods of producing biofuel it is the best one to be going for.”

He added: “The big drawback is that it is much more difficult and expensive than other methods and it is difficult to see how the economics works. However, if oil continues to get more expensive as resources decline, and the technology gets better and better, it will make more sense.”

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