Maximising renewable feed co-processing at an FCC

Collaboration is key to accelerate the energy transition and make best use of existing assets, like the FCC unit.

Stefan Brandt and Drey Holder, W. R. Grace & Co.
Gary Lee, Parkland

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Article Summary

The energy transition is demanding the decarbonisation of our way of living. Many different paths have been identified to contribute to the decarbonisation of the transportation sector. The inclusion of existing assets in such efforts is important to achieve rapid decarbonisation gains in the transportation fuel sector. The refining industry responded to the target of fossil carbon emission reduction by including renewable feedstock components in the refinery operation to reduce the carbon intensity of the resulting fuels.¹

Refiners are approaching the processing of renewable feeds in many ways. For instance, some are building new renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel units, co-processing renewable feeds at hydrotreaters or FCCs, or converting existing process equipment to process a portion of renewable feed. Often identifying and securing a consistent renewable feed source can be difficult for refiners. In addition, government regulations vary, leading to market uncertainty and causing renewable feed processing to be profitable in some locations but not in others. This creates opportunities for refiners, and some are actively pursuing those opportunities (see Figure 1).

In Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, Parkland has been working with feedstock suppliers, government, and Grace in the co-processing of renewable feed at its FCC:

Feedstock suppliers
• Working with multiple Canadian renewable feedstock suppliers, including Metro Vancouver, in support of its waste-to- biocrude HTL demonstration plant.

Government bodies
• The British Columbia (BC) government is supporting the studies of co-processing pathways.
• The Canadian Federal government is developing its own standards.

Industrial research
• University of British Columbia has a dedicated program to work with Parkland to support co-processing.
• Grace is collaborating with Parkland to test co-processing of renewable feeds in an FCC pilot plant.

The BC Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) requires fuel suppliers to progressively decrease the average carbon intensity of the liquid transportation fuels they supply and encourages fuel suppliers to invest in low‐carbon fuel alternatives. A 30% carbon intensity reduction is required by 2030 when compared to a 2010 baseline. In addition, the Canadian Fuel Standard (CFS) was published in July 2022, with compliance starting in July 2023. Like the LCFS, the CFS mandates a 15% carbon intensity reduction across the country by 2030. More fuels are obligated under the CFS, including propane and fuel oils.

When renewable feedstocks are co-processed in a refinery, the transportation fuels produced from these feedstocks have lower carbon intensity, in some cases 80% lower1 than conventional fuels, and can be used in existing vehicles without any modifications. Knowing this, Parkland conducted its first commercial trial of canola oil at its FCC in 2017 (see Figure 2). Since 2017, Parkland has progressively increased FCC co-processing. Today, the Parkland refinery FCC consistently processes more than 10 vol% renewable feed and regularly exceeds 20 vol% (see Figure 3). By 2026, Parkland has a goal of reducing customer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to one million metric tons per year or the equivalent of more than 350,000 cars. To accomplish this goal, it is working towards increasing co-processing to 40 vol% renewable feed at the FCC in the next four years and a longer-term goal of the FCC processing 100% renewable feeds.

When a refiner like Parkland determines that government regulations enable renewable processing or co-processing to be economically beneficial and a consistent source of renewable feed is found, this unlocks a plethora of additional questions like:
υ    Which is better for us – co-processing at an FCC, hydrotreater, or building a renewable diesel unit?
ϖ    How do we manage the risk to operations that results from processing a renewable feed?
ω    What compliance pathways are available to us and provide the most efficient use of capital/feedstock?

To help with Question 1, Parkland developed a list of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of its best two options (see Table 1). This list proved helpful to its decision-making process and can help other refineries weigh similar options. The list could also be combined with other data, such as a risk matrix, to choose the best option.

Because co-processing at an FCC can often use existing infrastructure and be implemented relatively quickly (when compared to a dedicated renewable diesel unit, as seen in Table 1), this pathway was chosen, and Grace was able to step in and help Parkland with managing the operational risk. Grace has been researching co-processing renewable feeds for decades and has supported a multitude of FCC co-processing applications worldwide. References 2, 3, and 4 are a representative sample of related co-processing publications.

Renewable feedstock availability
Because of the limited availability of renewable feedstocks for refiners compared to conventional feedstocks in North America, research on renewable feeds is often kept company-confidential (when a refiner can identify a reliable renewable feed source). As such, finding enough information and gaining a good understanding of FCC co-processing can prove difficult for refiners. This lack of understanding, combined with common refinery goals of high utilisation and risk minimisation, leads to concerns and further limits the ability of refiners to move forward with co-processing renewable feeds. This is where lab testing, technical support, and research have become vital parts of processing renewable feeds at FCCs all over the world and, beginning in 2018, at Parkland.

To help conceptualise a co-processing workflow process, Grace and Parkland worked together to create a flow chart that helped address initial operational challenges and integrate the Grace Research and Development Team and the Grace Global Customer Technology Group or ‘GCT’. The process flow chart used in the first project can be seen in Figure 4. Though simple, the process laid the framework for future research and development agreements between Parkland and Grace that is still being used today and generating confidence throughout the two organisations to conduct renewable feed testing, catalyst development, and commercial trials.

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