As the U.S. works to reduce carbon emissions, renewable diesel from resources like soybeans are being studied as a low-carbon fuel solution. Explore key challenges the soybean industry can work through to find greater success.
By Bethany Baratta
As governments and companies set aggressive carbon emission reduction goals, those organizations are looking to renewable diesel made from lower carbon, renewable resources like soybeans as a direct substitute for petroleum diesel.
Renewable Diesel vs. Biodiesel
Renewable diesel differs from biodiesel in that it can also be produced from a variety of non-fat feedstocks (like energy grasses, wood, ethanol, and even garbage) – in addition to traditional feedstocks like soybean oil. Additionally, renewable diesel can have better handling characteristics, including a longer shelf life and lower freeze point. Although there are key differences, renewable diesel, like biodiesel can still deliver a 40-86% reduction in emissions compared to petroleum diesel according to Argonne National Lab.
Renewable diesel is created through hydrotreating, a process like a traditional refinery operation. The high-heat, high-pressure process produces a fuel with chemical properties like conventional diesel, according to Clean Fuels Alliance America, formerly National Biodiesel Board.
“Renewable diesel is a top choice in markets with aggressive climate targets,” Matt Herman, Senior Director of Renewable Products Marketing for the Iowa Soybean Association, told participants at a Soybean Research Forum and Think Tank earlier this year.
Renewable Diesel Production in the United States
In 2021, U.S. renewable diesel production equaled about 815 million gallons. Consumption equaled about 1.16 billion gallons, which included about 392 million gallons of imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
California uses most of U.S. renewable diesel products and imports, accounting for over 80% of national demand. In 2021 the state consumed a combine 1.229 billion gallons of biodiesel and renewable diesel, replacing a full 1/3 of their petroleum diesel with renewables. The state has set a target of carbon neutrality by 2045. Utilizing biodiesel and renewable has helped California sprint toward its carbon reduction targets, while novel technologies like electric vehicles continue to gain steam.
Participants at the Think Tank, ranging from researchers to farmers and sustainability experts to food company executives, were asked to bifurcate the challenges and opportunities associated with renewable diesel.
They identified six challenges the soybean industry can work through to find greater success in the renewable diesel space:
- Meeting demand: Can the soybean industry produce enough soybeans to meet all demand from food, feed and fuel customers?
- Genetic edits for end uses: Will there be a yield drag for farmers if soybeans are modified in a way that creates beneficial properties for end users? (i.e. higher oil content, different fatty acid profile).
- Infrastructure: What investments are needed to support the increase in renewable diesel capacity in the U.S.?
- Carbon intensity scores: What can be done in the lab and in the field to reduce the carbon intensity of soybeans and their crop rotations?
- Process byproducts: What can we do with the increased amount of soybean meal produced domestically?
- Market stability: What’s the market look like for renewable diesel? What does it mean for soybean farmers? The soybean meal market?
Renewable diesel presents several opportunities for participants all along the value chain to extract greater value from soybeans, contributors to the Think Tank said.
- Soy profile: This can be an opportunity for soybean breeders to alter the bean for fuel market optimization.
- Marketing alongside electric vehicles: Renewable diesel has a place alongside electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions.
- Sustainability/carbon intensity: Soy is a sustainable, renewable feedstock. Increasing the sustainability of biofuel will make soymeal more sustainable, too.
- Increase demand: There are several untapped markets (marine, rail, bioheat). This demand can be influenced by policy, corporate sustainability goals, and partnerships with environmental groups.
- Processing: As the renewable diesel process becomes more widely available, costs of processing will decrease and new products like sustainable aviation fuel may become more commonplace .
- Value add/identity preservation: Can soybeans with a higher oil content be incentivized? Is there an opportunity for regional incentives? Can we avoid identify preservation?
Guiding the Iowa Soybean Association’s efforts in exploring opportunities in renewable products, Herman is bringing together various stakeholders.
“We’re now starting to see these legacy petroleum companies lean into renewable diesel because this is a product they can make in their existing refineries,” Herman says.
One such conversation happened earlier this year with Valero, the world’s largest independent refinery. The company is also the second largest renewable diesel producer in the world and a large producer of corn ethanol.
The conversations and plant visit with what was typically considered an adversary has morphed into finding common goals in how to increase production of renewable diesel, and, therefore, drive demand for soybean oil.
“Valero [and other petroleum companies] are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible for every gallon of fuel they produce,” Herman says. “There is a really strong interest in both parties in reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture feedstocks used to make these fuels.”