Nearly 11% of the nation's animal fat waste, used cooking oil and other discarded grease streams will be turned into renewable diesel fuel when work is completed on the $368-million Diamond Green Diesel facility now under way in Norco, La., near New Orleans. The biomass project will nearly triple the amount of renewable diesel produced domestically, according to the U.S. Energy Dept., and may be the first of several such innovative technology projects planned in the state.

The project, a joint venture between independent oil refiner Valero Energy Corp. and animal rendering and food waste recycler Darling International Inc., signals a boost in the regional biomass construction market, says Lee Mayeux, project manager for Baton Rouge, La.-based Cajun Industries, which is providing construction services. After a lull following busy construction activity in 2006-2007, work in the biofuels sector is "definitely" picking up again, he says.

Mayeux points to the state's highly skilled construction work force as a key factor. Cheaper fuel costs are another. "The low and consistent cost of natural gas is prompting the chemical and fertilizer sectors to undertake new projects," he says. "For the past four or five years, a lot of work was in refinery expansions, but that work is starting to slow down."

Primed for growth

Because of the market for renewable diesel, there will be more development. The $1-per-gallon biomass-based diesel tax incentive, part of January's congressional "fiscal cliff" deal, is another major driver in the renewable diesel and larger biodiesel industries.

When Diamond Green Diesel starts up later this year, the 137-million-gallon-per-year plant will be one of only two renewable diesel facilities in the country. Dynamic Fuels in Geismar, La., completed in 2010, is the only one operating. But more are coming. Oil companies can use renewable diesel to lower carbon emissions and satisfy government biofuels mandates without having to adjust or upgrade their own refining or blending operations. The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard requires oil majors to use 1.28 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel in 2013.

Another plant still under development, announced last year by Illinois-based Emerald Biofuels LLC, is slated for construction at a Dow Chemical site in Plaquemine, La. According to Emerald CEO David Drew, the firm is targeting late 2014 for start-up of the 85-million-gallon-per-year facility. Cajun says the company is excited about these developments in the biofuels industry and the opportunities being created for construction firms in the region.

The contractor says its past experience with biofuels projects helped it to win the bid for Diamond Green Diesel. "We've been involved in several biofuels projects over the years," Mayeux says. "Verenium in Jennings, La., for instance, was the first plant in the U.S. to convert sugar cane bagasse to ethanol."

Diamond Green Diesel is a first-of-its-kind plant as well, which will push needed volumes of advanced biofuels not made from food resources into the marketplace. Renewable diesel is different from the more prolific biodiesel. While both are made from non-fossil fuel feedstocks, such as vegetable oils or animal fats, renewable diesel's chemical composition is different.

"Renewable (or green) diesel has a different molecular structure than current mass-produced biodiesel, which allows it to be distributed using the current petroleum distribution system, such as a pipeline," according to Turner Industries, Baton Rouge, the general contractor for the project. "Renewable diesel is a supplement to the normal market for waste animal fats in the area," adds Mayeux. "It's a good, viable product and by partnering with Darling International, Valero has a dedicated stream of feedstock for the plant."

It's taken several years and a high-profile team of engineers and contractors to complete Diamond Green Diesel. Richard Industrial Group, Desmet Ballestra, Honeywell, Universal Oil Products LLC (UOP), Rosemount Controls and Baton Rouge-based Triad Electric are among the team members at work since early 2010 on the plant, which broke ground in May 2011.