Shell plans to take biofuel technology to next level

Energy giant buys innovative Alberta biofuel start-up company

A major oil company could soon become a big player in Canada’s biofuel sector.


Royal Dutch Shell has acquired exclusive development and licensing rights for SBI BioEnergy’s biofuel technology.


SBI is an Edmonton company that has developed a novel approach for creating biofuel out of plant oil and animal fat.


The company uses a catalytic process that requires no water or consumable chemicals to make biodiesel. 


“It uses a catalyst that doesn’t get consumed at all and can be used almost forever,” said SBI founding president Inder Singh.


“That makes it really cheap and clean.”


The next step is to use another proprietary catalyst to convert the biodiesel into renewable diesel, jet fuel and gasoline that is identical to petroleum fuel. 


That process does not require hydrogen, which lowers the capital and operating costs of making renewable diesel, increases manufacturing safety and reduces the carbon footprint.


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The patented process produces a drop-in renewable fuel that is identical to petroleum fuel, so there are no blending limitations. SBI says its fuels do not require modifications to engines, storage facilities or distribution infrastructure.


“SBI has a promising new Canadian biofuels technology,” Andrew Murfin, general manager of advanced biofuels for Shell, said in a news release.


“This is a great opportunity for us to combine Shell’s innovation and commercialization capabilities with SBI’s technical expertise to investigate the potential this technology has for commercial application.”


SBI is in the midst of building a $20 million, 10 million litre demonstration refinery in Edmonton. The original plan was to follow that up by building a full-scale commercial plant capable of producing 240 million litres of biofuel by 2018.


Commercialization of the product is now in hands of Shell.


“I think their first facility will be much larger than that,” said Singh.


He said companies such as Shell typically build refineries capable of producing 400 million litres of fuel annually.


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The agreement with Shell includes a clause that its first refinery using the new technology will be built in Alberta.


“We thought we need to give back to the community where we live and we work and create jobs,” said Singh.


Shell did not respond to an interview request for this story.


Amit Kumar, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alberta, said SBI is on the leading edge of the renewable fuel industry.


“This seems to be a more upcoming new technology and new way of producing renewable diesel that has the potential of reducing costs,” he said.


“That might be the main driver for Shell to adopt this one.”


He believes Shell will help SBI complete the demonstration facility, operate it for a couple of years to gather data and then build a commercial-scale facility if it is happy with the results.


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Kumar said a commercial-scale plant would be a boon for Alberta’s agriculture industry because it would consume existing oilseed crops, encourage the commercialization of new non-food crops such as camelina and carinata and provide a new market for animal fat.