Due to its location on the periphery of Europe, biofuel developments by Finnish companies often receive less media attention than they deserve. However, the country has been developing a range of technologies to convert its indigenous organic wastes, wood and biomass resources into high quality biofuels.

St1 Group

A key player in this market is the transport fuel and energy company, St1 Group [www.st1.fi]. It is developing a range of energy activities in both Finland and the surrounding Scandinavian ad Baltic countries. From its headquarters in Helsinki the company operates a total of around 1200 St1 and Shell branded petrol stations in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Poland. The company also markets aviation fuels to Finnsh airports. It has aspirations to become an electricity producer and is installing a series of wind turbines [with the goal of having up to 100 turbines in Finland].

St1 Group is also actively rolling out a Finnish-developed technology which converts a range of organic wastes and biomass materials into ethanol.

Commercialising Finnish technology

A new production process to convert a range of organic waste and biomass into ethanol was developed by Dr Antti Pasanen while he was working as a research scientist at VVT - the Technical Research Centre of Finland. The technology utilises advanced fermentation technology to breakdown a range of waste materials to produce ethanol, carbon dioxide and a solid residue.

Reports in the Finnish media attracted the attention of St1 Group and they rapidly established a joint venture company with VTT in 2006 to commercialise this technology – which is called Etanolix. St1 would subsequently buy-out VTT’s shareholding in the company.

Dr Pasanen joined the newly-formed St1 Biofuels and was closely involved in its subsequent development.

The key [sustainable] feature of the Etanolix technology is that it allows dispersed bioethanol production. Small ethanol production facilities [with an annual production capacity of 1m+ litres of ethanol] allow waste materials to be converted in-situ – rather than the waste being transported to a large central facility [or to a landfill site].

The product produced at the distributed plants is 85% ethanol. It is transported to St1’s central dehydration plant in Hamina where it is upgraded to over 99.5% ethanol and then blended with petrol to produce the final transportation fuel.

St1 stress the sustainable credentials of the Etanolix technology. The company does not use food-grade materials as the management feel that bioethanol production should not reduce the global availability of food crops.

The benefit to the waste producer is that their waste doesn’t have to be transported to a landfill site – allowing them to avoid landfill taxes and associated gate fees.

St1 have built production units at seven locations in Finland - at Lappeenranta, Hamina, Vantaa, Lahti, Närpiö, Jokioinen and Hämeenlinna – with an annual production capacity of 10m litres of ethanol. An additional three production units are scheduled for development and commissioning by 2013.

These plants utilise a range of food and other waste materials generated by adjacent plants [including potato, bakery, brewery and other food waste materials].

The bulk of the solid residue produced from food wastes by the Etanolix process is sold to local farms as an animal feedstock. Where the plant utilises brewery wastes, the CO2 generated by the Etanolix process is sold back to the brewery for use in beer production.

St1 has signed supply contracts for the waste received from each company. However, the modular nature of the Etanolix plants allows them to be dismantled and moved to another site should the waste supply be terminated.

St1 have indicated that the construction costs of each unit are in the range of 2.5m Euros [with this total including the civil engineering and utility connection costs]. The estimated payback period for the plants is currently 6-7 years.

These “satellite” plants utilise advanced process control systems supplied by ABB. This allows the company to remotely operate the plants from a main control room in Hamina.

RE85

St1 market the ethanol these produce as a blended petrol - RE85 – which fulfils the E85 fuel specifications.

The RE85 blend produced by the Etanolix production system has been shown to have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any biofuel production technology. It can be as low as 0.01kg CO2 / kgoe – which compares with 3.8kg CO2 / kgoe for fossil fuel diesels and 1.48kg CO2 / kgoe for corn-based ethanol production. [kgoe = kilogram oil equivalent, 41,868 MJ/kg]

St1 is currently expanding the number of locations in Finland where drivers can buy RE85 and ethanol-blended petrol.

By 10th May 2011 RE85 was being sold in nine Finnish cities – but the company now plan to sell the fuel in a further 22 cities and towns. This expansion programme will take place throughout 2011/12.

In 2010 St1 announced that its RE85 blend had met a series of strenuous tests and performed well in low temperatures. VTT carried out a range of tests on the fuel at -25 °C. The results should encourage drivers in cold climates [such as Finland] that ethanol-blended fuels are reliable for most vehicle types.

A key factor in the expansion of the sustainable transportation market is the introduction of flexifuel vehicles [FFVs]. These vehicles run on high-ethanol blends, such as RE85, as well as ordinary petrol.

Ford, Volvo and Saab have considerable experience in various parts of the globe with flexifuel cars. They are now importing growing numbers of these vehicles into Finland and other EU countries. It is hoped that the vehicle taxes in Finland and other countries will be modified to encourage greater sales of FFVs.

Future Developments

St1’s current aspiration is to have an annual production of 300m litres of ethanol by 2020. To meet this ambitious goal the company will need to expand the range of feedstocks it uses.

Variants of the Etanolix technology will utilise biodegradable municipal wastes [the Bionolix system], municipal solid wastes [Waste 360 system], industrial wastes and sidestreams [Cellunolix system], and straw [Fiberix system]. New plants to utilise these systems and materials will be constructed during this decade.

European legislation will lead to domestic organic wastes being banned from landfill sites. This will create a significant market opportunity for the Bionolix system - with the construction of up to 10 dedicated ethanol production units being possible by 2020.

The company has carried out detailed evaluation plans for a new large-scale plant which will take the wastes produced by the city of Hämeenlinna. This plant could be a key step in ST1’s ethanol production plans, eventually allowing them to sell their RE85 blend to other companies as well as in their own petrol stations.

At the moment this innovative and low-carbon technology is only being developed in Finland. It is hoped that other companies will evaluate the potential opportunities for its utilisation elsewhere in the world.