From refinery to biofuel reactor

A disused Western Australia oil refinery is one step closer to being given a new lease on life as a biofuel reactor and it could help power Australia’s aviation industry towards its 2050 carbon reduction targets.

The $1 billion BP Kwinana Renewable Fuels Project situated between Perth and Rockingham will produce up to 1.6m litres (10,000 barrels) of biofuels daily from vegetable oils, animal fats (tallow) and other agricultural and biological wastes.

The bioaviation and biodiesel fuels it produces could be directly substituted for their fossil fuel equivalents.

While hydrogen and batteries are proving viable for cars, trucks, trains and heavy mining equipment, the technologies need to be smaller and lighter for commercial airliners.

But biofuel comes with its own problem – every field dedicated to the industry’s feedstock crops is a field that won’t be feeding humans or animals.

“Australia will need to grow new crops and collect crop residues such as sugar cane pulp to create enough biomass to fuel the industry,” a recent CSIRO report states. “We will need to produce biomass in a way that adds value, by understanding the co-benefits and trade-offs of different feedstocks.”

Limiting biofuel use to a few sectors, such as aviation, may keep the industry sustainable. Until then, there’s enough waste material available to make a good start.

BP says the Kwinana reactor will convert some 500,000 tonnes of feedstock into biofuel annually. This will initially be mostly waste cooking oils and fats collected from around Australia and the world. The British oil and gas conglomerate says other materials are being considered and will be selected to not compete with human and animal consumption.

The contaminated Kwinana site has been an oil refinery since 1955 but was decommissioned 3 years ago after being assessed as too expensive to upgrade.

Repurposing the old site – and reusing some of its existing pipeline, wastewater treatment, flare, jetty and tank infrastructure – has the potential to significantly reduce environmental impact.

And being an established industrial area, BP hoped its reuse would limit the need for extensive new site approvals.

WA Environmental Protection Authority chair Professor Matthew Tonts agreed: “Using a previously disturbed footprint within an industrial area means no clearing of vegetation is required.”

But he added a comprehensive carbon budget analysis of the site’s emissions versus mitigations will still need to be produced.  

It’s a concern shared by the CSIRO: “These facilities must run on renewable energy to have the most impact on net emissions reduction.”

BP believes it has an answer – converting another section of the former plant into a green hydrogen production hub known as H2Kwinana. The project completed its concept development study in August 2023.

The EPA report is subject to public appeal until 23 January 2024. BP says it will decide as to whether or not the facility is economically viable later this year.

Kwinana isn’t Australia’s only biofuels project. A $500 million biorefinery plant proposed for Gladstone, Queensland, is slated to begin production in 2025. Operated by Oceania Biofuels, the plant will convert sugarcane and associated byproducts into 350 million litres of sustainable aviation fuel annually.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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