The Feedstock Phenomenon Transforming the UK’s HVO Fuel Landscape

Hydrotreated Vegetable oil (HVO) fuel has emerged as a leading contender in the search for cleaner and more efficient energy alternatives, especially in the United Kingdom. This surge is not simply looking for a change in fuel preferences but a transformative revolution that puts us closer to a greener future. For those unfamiliar with this fuel alternative, HVO fuels are a type of diesel made from renewable sources, including vegetable oils and various forms of feedstock. 

This transformative biofuel is reported to be carbon-neutral with its plant-based composition and is, therefore, not a contributing agent to climate change. It does not add carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions to the atmosphere when burned.  Simply put, plants absorb CO₂ as they grow, so burning them simply returns that carbon to the atmosphere, creating a closed loop.

This sustainable option can be used by many different sectors, such as the construction industry, the rail industry, event production, and public transportation. While they are essentially compatible with all diesel engines, these various industries must still adhere to the manufacturer’s guidelines about each application of the fuel. The original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of diesel vehicles are the ones who usually grant authorization for the utilization of HVO renewable diesel across a diverse range of their vehicles.

However, at the core of this profound energy transition lies a critical determinant—the availability of raw materials. The success and scalability of HVO fuel production depend crucially on sourcing renewable raw materials, which can be limited by availability, competition, or sustainability concerns–especially with the feedstock materials within the sourcing area. With sustainability at the forefront, this article unveils the complex dance between HVO fuel and its feedstock, highlighting its crucial role in unlocking a greener future paved with potential opportunities.

aerial photography of green leafed trees
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Current Feedstock Availability for HVO Fuel

Forget dirty diesel! HVO is a clean-burning fuel made from recycled plant oils processed through hydro treatment, meaning it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Particularly, this green diesel, such as Syntech’s HVO Fuel alternative, is created from lipids, such as vegetable oil and tallow, used cooking oils, and animal fats–made of paraffinic hydrocarbons, resulting in a low-carbon fuel. HVO is free from sulfur, oxygen, and aromatic hydrocarbons, has a high cetane number, and has significantly lower density and energy than fossil diesel. Currently, it is the second largest renewable diesel alternative worldwide, and due to its limited sourcing coverage, it is blended in fossil diesel and sold as mixtures at fuel filling stations.

Thus lies the rub. A fuel blend incorporating renewable and nonrenewable components, such as fossil fuels, fundamentally undermines its overarching sustainability objectives. Understanding the present landscape involves an exhaustive examination of the reliability and sustainability inherent in the existing feedstock supply chains. This extends beyond merely identifying plausible raw materials; it is also essential to navigate through the complex process of evaluating the robustness of supply chains, their resilience to external factors, and the ecological sustainability of the sourced materials.

As nature has long been teaching us, there is no such thing as a perfect solution to any present problems; there are always existing tradeoffs. Ideally, industry experts are accountable for thoroughly evaluating whether the purported benefits of such alternatives outweigh these tradeoffs. For instance, while a broader range of raw materials is feasible for production, resources are still logistically limited. 

Specifically, palm oil or waste from palm oil production, used for most HVO fuel in some areas of the UK, has raised alarming concerns for its contribution to deforestation, increased stress on land resources, and inflating food prices. Learn more about this issue here: https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/petitions/1111/stop-rainforest-destruction-for-biofuels

Further investigation has also revealed that even when carbon emissions are low, emissions of NOx and other particulates are evidently not reduced. Due to its limited infrastructure, HVO is still more expensive than diesel in most markets and may not be the most practical business decision.

Nevertheless, HVO fuel remains a promising alternative as a temporary solution–a transition fuel to help us ease into more sustainable fuel sources that ultimately move us away from petroleum-derived diesel fuels. While it may be hard to do away with environmentally destructive fossil fuels overnight, HVO can be a tool to help make the journey easier.

Opportunities for Feedstock Diversification

While certain feedstock may be problematic with its usage, the key to unlocking HVO’s full potential lies in diversifying feedstock sources outside the traditional vegetable oils, from agricultural residues and waste oil to algae and microbial sources. The possibilities are as diverse as they are abundant. However, availability, scalability, and environmental impact must be evaluated to ensure the long-term viability of the diversification efforts. 

Currently, HVO is produced from a variety of feedstocks, including vegetable oils like rapeseed, soybean, palm, and sunflower oils, as well as animal fats and waste oils and fats. In concept, green diesel can be produced from virtually any type of feedstock. It is also essential to ensure that these resources are tested for their lubricity, cetane number, and cold flow properties, as it can essentially affect the properties of the final HVO product. 

At its core, feedstock diversification is about building a robust and resilient supply chain that can withstand the uncertainties of the future. We can mitigate risks associated with supply chain disruptions and price volatility by reducing reliance on a single source or region. Moreover, a diversified feedstock portfolio enhances the sustainability credentials of HVO fuel and makes it a practical choice for relevant industries. By tapping into these latent sources, we can bolster the resilience of our supply chain, positioning it as a truly viable alternative to conventional fossil fuels.

Along with the quest for diversification are the necessary improvements of existing infrastructure as an opportunity for the HVO industry to explore. While the core advantage of biofuel lies in its sustainable properties, its end goal should involve being accessible to the general public. Typical expenses for feedstock, price fluctuations, the necessity for technological advancements, and infrastructure spread across diverse locations all contribute to this innovation’s feasibility. 

Looking ahead, the future of HVO fuel production hinges on leveraging technological innovations, implementing sustainable practices, and fostering partnerships across industries and sectors. By adopting a holistic perspective, we can unlock the full potential of HVO fuel as a cornerstone of our transition towards a cleaner, greener energy future.

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