Courtesy of Honeywell UOP
Valero's new advanced diesel plant in Norco, La., will take in waste animal fats and grease and turn them into clean fuels.

The last pipe and tube work is under way at Valero Energy Corp.'s new Diamond Green Diesel plant, which will create fuel from waste animal fats rather than petroleum feedstocks.

Believed to be the largest plant of its kind in the world, DGD will take in some 11% of waste animal fats and grease in the U.S. to produce 137 million gallons per year of renewable diesel fuel. The largest U.S. rendering and animal recycling firm, Darling International, will supply the raw material.

The $300-million facility, located next to Valero's St. Charles Refinery in Norco, La., is scheduled to begin operation this month, according to a Valero spokesman. More than 1,000 workers were on-site at the peak of construction.

The work has proceeded smoothly, but there have been some tensions and delays in the nearly two years since the project broke ground. For one, Valero applied for a Dept. of Energy loan guarantee. It was approved, but Valero later rejected it to expedite the process. "We think this project would still be several years out if Valero had accepted the partnership of the DOE," says Denny Robertson, lead process engineer for Richard Industrial Group, the project's design-builder based in Beaumont, Texas.

Complex piping required in the last stages of construction also has caused delays. The ability of firms with strong civil and structural engineering departments to merge with expert pipefitters and welders is a prerequisite to land bids in the rapidly expanding oil-and-gas, chemical and biofuels sectors. "You have to have 3D AutoCAD and strong engineers and pipefitters," Robertson says, "or else you are going to fall by the wayside."

Project contractors, including build partner Turner Industries, Baton Rouge, have had to coordinate carefully with Valero, Honeywell UOP, Desmet Ballestra and others. "Just getting the equipment off the barge and into the plant was a very difficult job," Robertson explains.

Renewable diesel is marketed differently than biodiesel: It is chemically identical to petroleum diesel, but it is not made from crude oil and offers 80% reductions in life-cycle carbon emissions. This distinction has investors optimistic because the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard requires oil majors to introduce 1.28 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel in 2013.

As such, more plants like DGD—which is one of just two in the U.S.—are expected to fire up. Jinming Liu, a biofuels market analyst for Ardour Capital Group, New York City, says DGD's ability to refine low-quality fat and grease gives it a market advantage over other biodiesel firms that often rely on relatively expensive virgin oils, such as soybean or canola. He says, "At DGD, the fat content of the feedstock doesn't matter, which allows them to take in some very low-cost material."