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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Biofuels: first industrial-scale solar thermal plant inaugurated, while used cooking oil claims queried


The Dawn mirror array and collecting tower Photo: Synhelion
The Dawn mirror array and collecting tower

Photo: Synhelion

Synhelion has inaugurated a solar thermal fuel plant in Jülich, Germany, while plans progress for a similar plant in Australia as well as an innovative biofuel chemical conversion plant in the UK.

Called Dawn, Synhelion’s facility features a mirror field and 20-metre-high solar tower with solar receiver, thermochemical reactor and thermal energy storage. The site, with a production capacity of ‘several thousand’ litres of fuel per year, is said to be the first industrial-scale demonstration of the technology.


Operation, which will begin later in 2024, will produce synthetic crude oil (syncrude), an intermediate product to be processed in a conventional oil refinery into certified fuels.


A commercial plant to produce 1,000 t/y of fuel is planned to start construction in 2025, in Spain. Future plants are expected to be even larger, with a goal of 1mn tonnes of solar fuel by 2034.


In Australia, Vast Renewables has signed a joint development agreement (JDA) with energy company Mabanaft to advance Solar Methanol 1 (SM1), a concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) green methanol reference plant.


Located in South Australia at the Port Augusta Green Energy Hub, SM1 will have the capacity to produce 7,500 tonnes of green methanol each year.  


SM1 will be supplied with baseload renewable heat from Vast’s 30 MW/288 MWh CSP plant.  


The JDA sets out how the project will be developed. This comes after Vast and Mabanaft announced funding agreements for SM1 for up to A$40mn ($26.6mn). Just under half (A$19.48mn) will come from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). Subject to final investment decision, Mabanaft will receive up to €12.4mn ($13.3mn) from Projektträger Jülich on behalf of the German government, as part of the collaborative hydrogen supply chain development project HyGATE.  


Back in the UK, a first-of-a-kind demonstration plant for a new method of producing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from CO2 and hydrogen will be built at the PX Group Saltend Chemicals Park on the Humber.  


The plant will be developed by OXCCU, a climate tech spin-out from the University of Oxford, which has demonstrated a direct CO2 hydrogenation process with ‘minimal’ oxygenate byproducts. The process is said to simplify production.


Fed by biogenic CO2 and green hydrogen, the plant is expected to produce 160 kg (200 litres) of liquid fuel per day, of which the majority will be SAF.  


PX Group will provide the engineering design and construction of the outside battery limits (OSBL) support facilities as well as operations and maintenance when the plant is up and running. Operations are planned to start in 2026.


In November 2023, OXCCU won a £2.8mn ($3.5mn) Advanced Fuel Fund grant along with the University of Sheffield Translational Energy Research Centre (TERC) and Coryton to demonstrate the process in a reactor at TERC.


Used cooking oil claims queried

In other news, a study commissioned by Transport & Environment (T&E) raises concerns about the credibility of the supply chain for used cooking oil (UCO), which is used to make sustainable biofuel.  


Stratas Advisors’ research finds that China already exports more than half its UCO to be used in European and US cars and trucks.  


Demand is set to rise as airlines look to source alternatives to fossil kerosene. Global SAF targets in 2030 would require at least twice the UCO that can be collected in the US, Europe and China combined, the study finds.


In 2023, Europe burned through 130,000 b/d of UCO – eight times more than it collected and four times more than its national potential, say the researchers.


The study also raises concerns about potential fraud. T&E says: ‘While collection capacity and export levels appear to match up in China, a huge illegal gutter oil market means, in reality, the country is likely consuming significant volumes of UCO domestically. This suggests that the country uses and exports more than it collects, raising strong suspicions over virgin vegetable oil being mislabelled as waste oils.’


T&E biofuels campaigner Cian Delaney adds: ‘The fact Malaysia exports three times more UCO than it collects shows that fraud is almost certainly happening at a mass scale. With Malaysia being one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, it would heavily indicate that UCO is simply a backdoor for palm.’


Stratas’ data shows that collecting UCO in Asia is around 30% cheaper than in Europe. It cites a combination of self-declarations and a lack of effective testing of raw materials arriving at biofuel production sites as reasons why adulterated UCO and UCO biodiesel could be entering Europe. T&E calls for the European Union (EU) to move away from independent, industry-led voluntary schemes towards stricter EU and national government regulation and controls. T&E also calls for governments to stop counting imported UCO in sustainability targets.  


Earlier this year, the EU launched a biofuels database to improve their traceability.