Today, the drive towards energy-efficient, sustainable fuel sources is a given. It’s the focus of global summits involving the most powerful women and men in the world; it’s on the tip of all our tongues; and it’s a cornerstone of most businesses looking to operate in a world where customers demand conscience when it comes to our planet.
But the world’s wake up to the climate emergency wasn’t always as urgent or obvious. However, a handful of the most committed to the “green energy revolution” have been trying to find solutions for far longer than our climate has been at the top of the headlines.
Pekka Aalto has worked at Neste, the Finnish oil refining company that has become the global leader in renewable fuels, for decades. In the early 1990s, he and colleagues including Ulla Kiiski and Outi Piirainen started the search for alternative fuels that were less damaging to the planet.
One idea they hit upon would eventually become a technology called NEXBTL (Next Generation Biomass to Liquid), which enables the production of a renewable diesel. Today, renewable diesel made with NEXBTL technology powers transportation worldwide. Unlike conventional biodiesel, the quality of Neste MY Renewable Diesel™ remains excellent even when the raw materials change.
“The world wasn’t ready”
In the early 1990s, the time appeared, on the surface, to be ripe for innovation in fuels.
The 1992 Rio Earth Summit had opened the eyes of the world to the need to tackle the planet’s rising temperature.
The end of the Cold War gave the impetus to tackle the heating of the globe by enabling more realistic conversations with polluting states that had previously refused to engage in global initiatives.
“The green thinking was already present at Neste at that time,” Pekka Aalto, who now holds the position of fellow in refining processes, says. “We realised there is a lot of wood and other renewable materials in Finland we could utilize.”
Aalto and his colleagues at Neste could see that renewables were the future, but they realized it would take the rest of the world time to come to. And that was the problem.
“This was 1993. The world wasn’t ready."
Nonetheless, the small team set up within Neste to achieve this new reality for when the world caught up set to work. They conducted a literature review of what was already studied in the field. They didn’t find all that many workable ideas.
A Canadian set of researchers had managed to produce some diesel additives in a more environmentally-friendly way, but the end result was only an additive in diesel fuel. It had poor cold properties, limiting its use only as an additive. “We got an idea that maybe we should study this further,” Aalto explains.
Neste began testing ideas, not only hydrotreating, but also other processing possibilities of renewable oils and fats – a process that set the stage for the development of NEXBTL technology.
The world catching up
Although there were plenty of warm words in the international arena about needing to save the planet, there was little real action in the early 90s.
Plenty of people told Aalto and his colleagues they were wasting their time trying to create a new, renewable fuel. That included some within Neste.
“At that time, there were people who supported our efforts while some had doubts. Some told the research team there wasn’t a market to produce a renewable product, and it was way too expensive. The economics of oil refining didn’t support something like this.
The team realized that it will be much more expensive to produce rather than generating more fossil fuels, but they persisted.
Slowly, they won over some members of Neste, including visionaries in the business development side who could see the potential. One of those visionaries was Ensio Tukiainen, Neste’s Research & Development Director at that time.
Tukiainen gave Aalto, Kiiski, Piirainen and their colleagues the opportunity to keep pursuing their goal. They began testing the way catalysts interacted with vegetable oils and tall oil fatty acids. “Tukiainen was a forerunner in the field of clean technology,” says Aalto. “He saw the Neste way forward.”
Tukiainen saw the way Neste could differentiate itself in a crowded market: by producing more sustainable fuels that were lead-free and low-sulphur, powering the vehicles of tomorrow.
But to do that, the team first needed proof that it was possible to produce high-quality renewable fuel from the bio-based materials. As a first step, they looked at tall oil based materials, and realised that it’s possible to process that material and produce a high-cetane number component for diesel fuels.
However, the cold properties were still too low. “We needed to go further from there,” says Aalto. They began looking at cracking, but realised that would reduce the yield. “We make too much gases and gasoline by doing that, and we wanted to maximize diesel fuel,” he says. They looked at developing catalysts to further improve their product.
For catalyst characterization, they turned to academia for support.
Development with partners
Neste looked to Åbo Akademi University, University of Joensuu and Aalto University - at that time Helsinki University of Technology – in Finland for support.
“We knew that universities could make catalysts on a laboratory scale and that they were especially good in catalyst characterization,” Aalto says.
Åbo Akademi University’s catalyst team made some components for the catalysts tested, while the others participated in the characterization of the catalysts.
In early 1995 Neste started experiments with their own laboratory-scale catalysts. External support was valuable. “In each step of catalyst preparation, you need experienced people to make the catalyst, even though you have the recipe in your hands,” Aalto says.
They analyzed the product and saw there was a high yield and outstanding properties.
“We realized this is the way to go,” says Aalto. They put more resources into the project, and started a cooperation agreement with a commercial catalyst manufacturer. Neste applied for and was granted the patent on what would become NEXBTL technology in 1996.
That wasn’t the breakthrough moment, however.
While the technology was ready, the world still wasn’t. NEXBTL was put on the back burner for about five years, until it was revived in 2001. Now it’s a global success..
“Don’t give up”
Learning from developments like NEXBTL, the company now has a formalized way of processing internal ideas at Neste in a systematic way. “We now have a huge innovation culture,” says Juha Leppävuori, Head of Partnerships and Ecosystems at Neste.
Neste has also further increased its cooperation with external partners. “Universities and research organizations can have a role in both our short-term and long-term planning,” Leppävuori, who spends his time working with external partners and encouraging innovation within Neste, says. “We look for world-class competence and good networks.”
Neste now proactively courts universities and research institutions, setting out its long-term goals and approaching them, asking how they’d approach the problem. “We ask our partners to challenge us: are we doing the right thing,” he says. “That’s also a good starting point for building something new.”
The company has produced a stronger, more comprehensive culture of innovation that continues to lead the way in bringing about the better future we all hope for.
“Everyone in Neste is responsible for coming up with new ideas,” says Leppävuori. The ideas can come from anywhere – a scientist working in the company’s research and development team, top management, or someone in the back office.
The world has caught up, both within and outside of Neste. “My message is: ‘Don’t give up’,” says Pekka Aalto. “Don’t give up if you get a good idea and you count on it. Process it further and test it with your colleagues, make an invention disclosure and then search for the support. If someone says no, then ask for support from somewhere else.”