Digital Transformation Digitalizing a Biofuel Refinery for Enhancing Process Safety and Energy Efficiency

From Ahlam Rais*

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With the growing demand for biofuels across the globe, the oil refining firm Neste is in the process of expanding and digitalizing its existing biofuel refinery in Singapore in order to enhance process safety and asset integrity in the plant; improve energy efficiency, operational reliability and predictability in maintenance regime; and foster closer collaborations among other production sites.

Neste plans to invest 1.5 billion euros to expand its existing biofuel refinery in Singapore.
Neste plans to invest 1.5 billion euros to expand its existing biofuel refinery in Singapore.
(Source: Neste )

In the backdrop of rising pressure from international initiatives such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26), the global industrial sector is committing to sustainable goals. Some of them have already started work on achieving these goals which aim at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in their processes, overall operations, as well as the products produced at the facility which are then supplied to end-user markets such as the transport industry.

For instance, the Finland-based company Neste which develops sustainable solutions for the transport and aviation sectors, dedicatedly produces biofuels to reduce GHG emissions. The transport industry is one sector that emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and one which needs to be decarbonized urgently. Industry leaders believe that biofuels are one of the most viable solutions to this problem and therefore, the global demand for biofuels is expected to grow significantly.

In terms of numbers, the global biofuels market size is predicted to surpass around 201.21 billion dollars by 2030, from a value of 120.60 billion dollars in 2020, growing at a CAGR of 8.3 % from 2021 to 2030, states strategic market insights firm Precedence Research.

Neste Invests 1.5 Billion Euros for Biofuel Refinery Expansion

Given the growing market for biofuels and to help its customers reduce their GHG emissions by 20 million tons annually by 2030, Neste plans to invest 1.5 billion euros to expand its existing biofuel refinery in Singapore. With a current production capacity of 1.3 million metric tons, the facility is producing renewable diesel and on expansion is scheduled to increase the capacity by another 1.3 million tons, including up to one million metric tons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Kenneth Lim, Site Director/General Manager, Neste Singapore Refinery, Neste shares, “This expansion will enable the Singapore refinery to also produce sustainable aviation fuel and other renewable raw materials for polymers and chemicals. On top of that, we will also have additional capabilities to enhance our raw material pre-treatment, allowing us to process increasingly low-quality waste and residue raw materials.”

Kenneth Lim, Site Director/General Manager, Neste Singapore Refinery, Neste
Kenneth Lim, Site Director/General Manager, Neste Singapore Refinery, Neste
(Source: Neste )

SAF is another biofuel that is slowly gaining attention from the aviation industry owing to its ability to decarbonize the industry. A report by market research company Research and Markets forecasts that the global sustainable aviation fuel market is expected to grow with a CAGR of 61 % during the forecast period from 2021-2027.

Digitalizing the Refinery

With ambitious plans to expand its biofuel production and at the same time enhance its plant for overall efficiency as well as meet its net zero goals, the firm collaborated with the US-based company Emerson Automation Solutions to digitalize the Singapore refinery. “We are embracing the technological advances that Industry 4.0 brings, in order to enhance process safety and asset integrity in the plant; improve energy efficiency, operational reliability and predictability in maintenance regime; and foster closer collaborations among other production sites,” adds Lim.

The company plans to develop a wireless plan network at the plant and for this purpose a digitization road map was co-developed by Emerson on potential applications on safety, reliability, and efficiency.

On the different digital technologies that will be incorporated into the facility, Julie Valentine, Director – Global Refining and Sustainability Measurement Solutions, Emerson Automation Solutions says, “For the expanded plant in Singapore, Neste will apply Emerson’s Delta V automation system and software to control production for efficient performance and to deliver on-demand remote access to data and analytics.”

Julie Valentine, Director – Global Refining and Sustainability Measurement Solutions, Emerson Automation Solutions
Julie Valentine, Director – Global Refining and Sustainability Measurement Solutions, Emerson Automation Solutions
(Source: Emerson Automation Solutions )

She further adds that the firm’s advanced systems, software, analytics and mobility tools – part of its Plantweb digital ecosystem – establish the foundation to digitally transform operations by turning relevant data into new operational insights and actionable information that empower better decision-making.

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The measurement, analytical, process control and software technologies will help to deliver efficient operations. Hence, the overall infrastructure will allow Neste to deploy smart wireless sensors and related analytics in a scalable manner, according to the digitization road map. Valentine mentions that the firm’s automation and software technologies can help Neste to meet its net zero goals by providing the visibility to monitor, track and abate emissions.

Overcoming Hurdles

The multiple benefits of digitalizing and establishing a wireless network at the refinery cannot be ignored but the process of developing it is surely not easy. Valentine explains, “When designing a wireless network, a wireless tool would be deployed in conjunction with data from a site survey. Upon the placement of the access points at site, that is where the actual overall performance is evaluated, there were situations when we had to adjust the locations for the access points, but we expected this when executing a wireless network in the plant.” Hence, the company was able to design the wireless network without any major issues.

In conclusion, this example showcases how industry players can digitalize their plants to ensure better decision making and to enhance process safety as well as improve energy efficiency in their plants while producing sustainable solutions such as biofuels to reduce GHG emissions. Companies can also track their emissions and undertake suitable measures to reduce it with the help of these new-age technologies, thus supporting the climate change cause.

With time, digital transformation in plants will be inevitable due to its many advantages and sadly, those who don’t adapt to this change will be left out.

* The author is a freelance editor at PROCESS Worldwide. Contact: ahlam.rais@vogel.com

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