SunPine – first worldwide with biodiesel from tall oil

A brand new renewable engine fuel
from the forest

Swedish SunPine is aiming to be the first company worldwide producing biodiesel from tall oil. At the plant site of SunPine, in Piteå harbor in northern Sweden, the building activity is intense. In the spring of 2010 the plant will be ready and the first tall oil diesel produced. At the Preem refinery on the Swedish west coast the tall oil diesel will then be upgraded to a high quality green diesel.

“The tall oil diesel is unique in that the feedstock originates from the forest and that it can be blended into petro-based diesel fuel in higher percentages than ordinary biodiesel”, says SunPine CEO Magnus Wikman. “It also gives more energy and lower emissions than most other green diesel blends.”

Ten percent of Swedish diesel consumption
Normally a maximum of 5% biodiesel is blended into diesel fuel. Preem’s new green diesel, based on the tall oil diesel, will contain up to 20% green component. In this way the projected production of SunPine of 100,000 cubic meters tall oil diesel per year will become 500,000 cubic meters per year of ready fuel, more than 10% of the total Swedish diesel consumption. The new green diesel can be used in all diesel engines and does not have the drawbacks of the traditional biodiesel such as bacterial growth during storage.
Lars Stigsson, founder of SunPine, discussing the construction of the production plant with CEO Magnus Wikman (right).

Research turned into reality
It was only five years ago that the research started that created the foundation for the SunPine product. Behind the idea stands Lars Stigsson, who was also instrumental in the founding of Chemrec. Already at the outset he predicted the criticism directed against production of biodiesel from food crops. It became the driving force to search after other feedstock that could replace fossil fuels. In the laboratory he, together with leading researchers in chemical technology, started studying the byproducts of the forest industry. They found that black liquor, the dissolved wood substance formed as a byproduct when producing cellulose pulp, contained a number of interesting substances. The idea for SunPine was born.

Calcium soap, the origin of tall oil, constitutes only a small fraction of the black liquor but northern softwood gives the highest yield and fatty acid content. Turned into biodiesel, tall oil shows very positive results in life cycle analysis. After a couple of years of laboratory studies it was clear that tall oil could be used to produce a high quality biodiesel.

“It has been possible to realize our project quite quickly,” notes Wikman, who has been directing the development the last couple of years. “Many other initiatives for second generation green diesel are still at the research stage. The tall oil is a relatively easy feedstock compared to producing the fuel directly from wood or other biomass. This in combination with a skilled team researching and developing the process has made it possible to progress rapidly.”

Forest industry and oil company in cooperation
“We have created a ‘dream team’ through our ownership structure where forest industry and an oil company cooperate,” Wikman continues. “SEK 230 million (€23 million, $30 million) is invested in the Piteå plant. It is a substantial sum and one feels quite humble at the responsibility.”

SunPine was created in 2006, and received its environmental permit in March last year. Current owners each with 20% equity include oil company Preem; Sveaskog, the largest forest owner in Sweden; and, Södra, a forest owner cooperative operating four major pulp mills. The remaining 40% of the shares are held by Lars Stigsson through his company KIRAM AB. The structure of SunPine is evolving. Today the company has eight employees and also employs a number of consultants on a full-time basis. Before year-end, twelve operators will be handpicked for the operation of the Piteå plant.
The SunPine team
The sunny SunPine team on the roof of the production plant under construction.
From the left: Valerie Najdenov, Anders Skoog, Lars Stigsson, Johan Lundbäck, Anna-Lena Eriksson and Magnus Wikman. 
In the background the distiller.

“It is very stimulating to be working in an emerging industry,” says Anders Skoog, logistics manager who came to SunPine from a career in the oil industry. “The oil you wanted to reduce, the biofuels you work to increase,” he adds.

Limited feedstock availability
SunPine has contracted a large portion of the tall oil needed to utilize the capacity of the crude tall oil diesel plant. Initially the tall oil will come from pulp mills in Sweden and in the longer term also from other countries. SunPine takes all its feedstock from the byproduct from the forest industry.

“This constitutes a built-in limitation of the production volume,” says production manager Johan Lundbäck. “The pulp industry determines the feedstock availability. Of the total wood intake to the pulp industry only2% becomes tall oil. There is a total of 350,000 cubic meters (12 360 ft³) of tall oil available in Scandinavia. SunPine needs a third of this volume and competition is tough.”

The tall oil is today used as fuel in the industry and as a feedstock for the chemicals industry.

 Ill: Helikopter Reklambyrå
The SunPine process step-by-step:
1. Crude Tall Oil is mixed with biomethanol and sulphuric acid. Via the esterification a crude tall oil diesel component is built.
2. In a destillation tower the component is destilled to the main product crude tall oil (CTO) and the by-product pitch fuel.
3. The crude tall oil is then upgraded to a high quality diesel fuel at Preem refinery in Gothenburg.
4. The by-product pitch fuel is a green fuel oil. In the future it is also planned to extract other useful substances, such as resin acids and sterols.

Tall oil comes from pine, spruce and birch
The name tall oil is derived from the Swedish word for pine but tall oil is extracted also from spruce and birch. During the pulping process resinous substances in the wood are dissolved and form calcium soaps. This soap is skimmed from the black liquor and subsequently washed and acidified to form crude tall oil. The yield of tall oil diesel from the crude tall oil is high, up to 65-70 percent. The remaining 30-35% becomes pitch fuel, a renewable fuel oil which is returned to the pulp mills. Also other residual products such as sodium and sulfur are returned to a pulp mill. The SunPine production process does not generate any waste. In the future it is also planned to extract other useful substances, such as resin acids and sterols.

Few project risks
“It is fantastic to see the SunPine technology being realized,” says Lars Stigsson, who was visiting the plant erection site on this sunny day in September.

What a joy for a true entrepreneur to see his visions becoming reality in this way. But how is Lars viewing the future? What risks and opportunities lie ahead?

“From a technical point-of-view I see no major risks,” he says. “We use a well-known process technology, we have the best co-workers and excellent support from the shareholders. This gives the best possible preconditions. Political risks always exist, but up to 2020 there is a strong emphasis on renewable automotive fuels in Europe with tax relief and mandatory blending as important incentives. This is a decent timeframe but is important that a long-term view on this is taken politically.”

Increased demand for biodiesel
The demand for biodiesel has increased rapidly in Europe. During this decade the consumption has quadrupled and due to the political direction further growth is anticipated. If the demand for biodiesel continues to grow, crude tall oil import from for example Russia or Canada may result. SunPine may also build another plant in Sweden.

A new product in a well-known market
Biodiesel can be produced from a number of different feedstocks. Most are based on food crops or animal fat. The tall oil diesel will be a new product in an established market.

“We have not advertised the news that our product will soon be available in the market,” notes Wikman. “First we want to show the world that it works. But the discussions we nevertheless have in various countries are very positive and the expectations high. From our feedstock suppliers we also meet enthusiasm. They welcome a new actor in the market creating hope of a good economic future for the pulp mills. Renewable fuel is the future.”
Text & photos: Elisabeth Kempemo, Logos Kommunikation


Preem makes the tall oil diesel greener

The upgrading of SunPines tall oil diesel at the Preem refinery in Gothenburg makes the product meet all specifications for Swedish Environmental Class 1 (MK1) diesel.

“We believe making a product based on renewable forestry feedstock is important,” says Sören Eriksson, coordinator of Preem’s product development. “If we can also help recreate the competitiveness of the forest industry it is a plus.”  

The art of converting fatty acids to diesel hydrocarbons has been well known for at least 4 to 5 years. Now it is being implemented by Preem.

> Interview with Preem about the investment, the technology, the distribution and the challenges


Sveaskog invests to increase demand and value addition

Sveaskog and Södra through its members are two of the largest forest owners in Sweden. To become shareholders in SunPine is part of a strategy to find new ways of using the forest’s raw materials.

Sveaskogs CEO Gunnar Olofsson has shown an active interest in the project and I meet him at the erection site, where he has arrived to get a progress update. So what is the reason behind Sveaskog investing in SunPine?

“Sveaskog invests in the development of new uses of forestry raw material to increase the return on the capital we have invested in forests. Today, the greatest revenue is generated by timber and pulpwood. The use of forest-derived fuels for heat and power production is developing fast. In the future we anticipate forest-based feedstocks to be used for production of automotive fuels, textiles and composite materials. This development contributes to an increased long-term demand for forestry-based raw materials and also to increased value addition. Our ownership in SunPine is a sound financial investment.”