New technology converts all kinds of plant waste into useable fuel–and is part of a growing array of technologies aimed at island energy independence
On former pineapple fields outside of Honolulu, an industrial tube has been erected, ensconced in a steel scaffold. Dwarfed by the nearby oil refinery, the modest tube represents an attempt to one day wean Hawaii from imported oil. It is the nation’s first dedicated biorefinery, employing high heat to turn plant matter into oil, followed by chemical catalysis to upgrade that oil into a useable fuel, just like the much larger refinery down the road.
The biorefinery “makes a fuel which is usable in generator sets, boilers and also possibly in marine engines,” says chemical engineer Jim Rekoske, vice president of renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell’s UOP, the company responsible for building and operating the facility. By next year, UOP hopes to have the full biorefinery in place, which will be able to make almost any transportation fuel.
As the company has demonstrated elsewhere in the world, it is possible to make jet fuel from plant oils—whether they come from jatropha seeds, the flowering weed camelina or any other oil-producing plant. The same is true for other forms of transportation fuel, whether corn ethanol for cars or algal oil to power ships. The new facility in Hawaii will be the first integrated biorefinery dedicated to churning out bio-based versions of the full range of fuels more commonly made from petroleum.