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  • Writer's pictureRon Kotrba

Keep developing: New BDI leadership aptly suited for technology advances

Manfred Baumgartner, CEO, BDI-BioEnergy International

For more than a quarter century, Austria-based BDI-BioEnergy International has been defining and redefining biodiesel process technology and, as a result, the industry and markets it serves.

From the company’s early and progressive focus on converting waste feedstocks into high-quality biodiesel when others were squarely engrossed in crop oils, to its latest chemical process that upcycles waste plastics into pyrolysis oil, BDI and its tenured staff have withstood the test of time by continuing to develop.

Now, as BDI approaches its third decade of operation—and at a time when advancements in decarbonization technologies are perhaps at their most critical juncture—the company is under new leadership.

Manfred Baumgartner, who has been with BDI since its inception, has recently been appointed to serve as the firm’s co-chief executive, sharing the role with Kurt Ternegg. With Baumgartner’s deep technical expertise as a longtime process engineer and technical director, there are likely few candidates more qualified to lead BDI into this new era of decarbonization discovery.

In an exclusive interview, Ron Kotrba, the editor and publisher of Biobased Diesel Daily®, asks Baumgartner about his new role, what his leadership qualities will bring to the company, and how he sees the changing industries and markets BDI serves.

Q: Congratulations on your appointment as BDI-BioEnergy International’s CEO, which BDI announced in May. I understand you have been with BDI since its inception in 1996. Tell me about your long journey to this top post at BDI from your earliest days with the company. What roles have you performed over the years, and how did it come to be that you assumed the position of CEO?

A: Thank you. I worked with the owners Wilhelm Hammer and Helmut Goessler even before BDI was founded and was one of the first employees on board. At the beginning, I worked as a process engineer and, in my career, I have filled different roles. My main role was as technical director, leading all engineering teams for many years and I was responsible for commissioning quite a few plants. My last job was as a technical sales manager. Important to know is also that I was part of our R&D team since the beginning and thus involved in all of our research and developments. This has allowed me to get to know all sides of BDI—the technical side, the economic side and, above all, our customers and partners. I have known and been involved with the company since the very beginning, and I think this is something that will benefit me in my new role as CEO.

Q: Perhaps some people may not understand why a company would need or desire to have two CEOs. Can you describe why BDI has two chief executives—you and Kurt Ternegg—and what different responsibilities each of you has?

A: Since there were some organizational changes at BDI last year, Kurt Ternegg, CEO of BDI Holding, has also become CEO of BDI-BioEnergy International without further ado. He brings very strong input into all financial and economic decisions. The technical area is my field of expertise. We are sparring partners for each other, in many ways. We make strategic decisions together.

Q: You have been described by BDI as having a “curious nature.” What can you tell me about this, and how will it help guide your leadership of the company?

A: I am a very curious person who always wants to develop further. For me, standing still goes hand in hand with being bored and doesn’t make me happy. At BDI, it’s not just me but the entire team that has the opportunity to keep developing. I really appreciate that.

Q: Could you share with me your perspective on how the biofuels industries and markets have changed since you began working in these fields?

A: Since the beginnings of BDI-BioEnergy International, the biofuels industries and markets have experienced significant transformations. From the beginning, we developed projects with our own—and have searched for—pioneers who were willing to take the challenge to be one of the first on the market. Also from the beginning, we have worked hard to improve the technology every day and have developed many new process units. Moreover, we decided in the mid-1990s already to use waste oils as main feedstocks. This has provided many challenges, which we have always loved to solve. The focus on renewable energy sources and sustainability has propelled biofuels into the mainstream, leading to increased investments and technological advancements. BDI-BioEnergy International’s contributions in developing innovative biofuel production technologies have played a role in expanding the sector’s capacity and improving efficiency. Additionally, growing environmental concerns and government regulations have fostered greater demand for biofuels, resulting in a more diverse and competitive market landscape.

Q: How has BDI adapted over the years to capitalize on these changes?

A: A lot has happened in 27 years. We started with the development of biodiesel technologies from waste, and now we offer a broad portfolio of process-engineering solutions for the recycling and upcycling of various waste streams—biodiesel; advanced pretreatment for waste oils for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), or hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA); biogas from brewing residues; and the pyrolysis of low-grade plastic waste, to name just a few. It is also worth mentioning that our GreenTech Solutions team provides process-development support, from conceptualization through the operation of plants for new technologies developed by our customers. We are now providing the expertise we have learned with biodiesel technology and many other BDI developments for new customers. In doing so, we support our customers along the entire value chain—from the initial plant inspection and feasibility studies to engineering and plant construction, with ongoing customer service.

Q: What, in your opinion, are some of the more challenging biofuel-market situations in recent times, and how is BDI navigating these to come out ahead and help its existing and potential clients benefit in this new age of next-generation biofuels?

A: The biodiesel market is strongly influenced by the feedstock challenge, especially when it is about waste-based feedstocks, which are very limited. New technologies for SAF or HEFA are entering the market, tapping used cooking oil (UCO) sources and others. With BDI technologies, our customers are able to convert feedstock of the lowest quality—with up to 100 percent free fatty acid (FFA) content—into biodiesel. This allows our customers to use raw materials that cannot be used for the production of SAF and HEFA due to excessive impurities.

In addition, the aspect of CO2 reduction is an important factor. Biodiesel produced from UCO has a CO2 saving potential of around 90 percent compared to diesel from fossil raw materials. The production of HEFA only comes to a saving potential of around 75 percent.

Q: We have seen tremendous interest in SAF over the past few years. Ultimately, where do you think this market is heading and how will BDI help it get there?

A BDI PreTreatment facility (Photo: BDI BioEnergy International)

A: We are providing our PreTreatment technology for this industry, which compresences all of our knowledge about waste oils. Our plants are providing the well-known flexible BDI processes, which enable the industry to use a wide range of feedstock types and qualities.

Q: There has been discussion whether biodiesel can remain competitive in the face of growing renewable diesel demand and production, the consequential feedstock uptake this requires and pricing pressure this puts on the input materials. What might biodiesel producers need to do to remain not only competitive and relevant but profitable as well?

A: At present, many new technologies for the mobility sector are entering the market, all of which have their raison d’être when it comes to our climate and our planet. Many of these technologies—the electric drive, hydrogen drive and eFuels, for example—are only in the early stages and are not yet mature. Biodiesel technologies will therefore continue to play an important role in the future—on the one hand, when it comes to upcycling the poorest raw materials and, on the other, for heavy transport, the maritime sector and agricultural machinery.

Q: What markets hold the most promise in your eyes to grow methyl ester biodiesel consumption, and why?

A: My answer does not refer to markets, but to feedstock types. There is one particular feedstock, which is available in good quantities and its special properties require special processing. I am talking about acid oils from soapstock splitting from vegetable-oil refineries. This feedstock, even after pretreatment, has a high phosphorous content that cannot be removed economically. The high phosphorus content will remain between 100 and 300 parts per million (ppm), and this is contradictive to the goal of reducing it to the lowest possible levels for renewable diesel or SAF. Therefore, I would say it is the wrong feedstock for this task. Normal biodiesel plants can handle a maximum phosphorus content of 20 ppm, but our new RepCat technology can handle 200 ppm easily.

The same thing can be said about brown or black grease. These feedstocks can be very dirty, which results in the same question—is it worth using them for renewable diesel, or is it better to use them for biodiesel, which can handle these qualities much easier—with the right BDI technology.

Q: Around the world, government backing of climate initiatives focused on electric vehicles (EVs) to the exclusion of all else, including biofuel-powered internal combustion engines (ICE), has been on the rise and of concern to some in the biofuel sector. What is your position on governments banning ICE engines in the near future—including heavy-duty engines like in California? What risks are there to putting all of our proverbial eggs in one electrification basket?

A: Banning ICE engines, including heavy-duty engines, could pose several risks. First, it may limit the flexibility of transitioning to a low-carbon future, as different regions have varying infrastructure requirements and resource availabilities. Second, an exclusive emphasis on EVs could hinder the development and utilization of advanced biofuels, which can offer lower emissions and compatibility with existing infrastructure. Third, relying solely on electrification may lead to challenges in terms of grid capacity, battery production and resource sustainability. If one is reading studies about these topics, it sounds obvious that we cannot exchange all ICEs with electric drives.

A diversified approach that includes both EVs and advanced biofuels could offer a more comprehensive and sustainable solution. This would allow for flexibility, promoting competition, driving innovation and maximizing the potential for reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions across various sectors, including transportation. It is crucial for policymakers to consider a balanced and inclusive strategy that harnesses the strengths of both electrification and biofuels to address the challenges of climate change effectively.

Q: What biofuel policies in Europe or its individual nations, the U.S. or its individual states, or elsewhere around the world like Canada or South American countries like Brazil can you point to as being sound and beneficial for the environment, citizens and the biofuel industries, and why?

A: Several biofuel policies in Europe such as the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive have been instrumental in promoting sustainable biofuel production and consumption. These policies set clear targets for blending renewable fuels and provide incentives for advanced biofuels, contributing to GHG-emissions reduction and the development of the biofuel industry. In the United States, the Renewable Fuel Standard has encouraged the use of biofuels, including advanced biofuels, by mandating their blending into transportation fuel, which has boosted domestic biofuel production and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. Similarly, Brazil’s RenovaBio program has established a market-based system to incentivize biofuel production, fostering environmental benefits and supporting the growth of the biofuel sector.

Q: Conversely, what biofuel policies might you view as being harmful or not beneficial to the environment, citizens and/or the biofuel industries, and why?

A: Some biofuel policies, such as those promoting first-generation biofuels derived from food crops, have faced criticism for potential negative impacts on food prices, deforestation and land-use change. In some cases, policies lacking sustainability criteria and proper regulation can lead to unintended consequences, including increased GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, and social conflicts associated with land displacement and unsustainable farming practices.

Q: What would you like people to know about you that they probably otherwise wouldn’t?

A: My first education was in mechanical-automotive engineering before I turned to process engineering. This combination gave me an excellent basis for my entire job. And—I am a good dancer!

Q: What does the future hold for BDI and the industries it serves?

A: As the demand for renewable and sustainable energy sources continues to grow, biofuels are likely to play a crucial role in meeting these needs. BDI-BioEnergy International’s expertise in innovative biofuel production technologies positions us well to capitalize on these opportunities. With advancements in technology and increasing investments in research and development, the biofuels industry is expected to witness further improvements in efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental performance. Our ability to adapt to changing market demands and contribute to the development of advanced biofuel solutions will position us as a key player in the future biofuels landscape.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with me about you, your company or the biofuels sectors?

A: A lot has now been said about BDI and the biofuels sector. I believe that, in the future, it will be important to always make room for new, green recycling and upcycling technologies. We must learn to be more economical with our resources and identify and use the value of different waste streams.

With BDI GreenTech Solutions, which I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, we do just that. We use our decades of experience in the field of technology development and bring our customers’ ideas to industrial scale—plant construction and commissioning included.

Together with an Austrian partner—Next Generation Elements—we have developed a technology called SynCycle, which converts plastic waste into pyrolysis oil via a chemical process. This oil can then be reused for the production of new plastic products. We are currently commissioning our industrial-scale demonstration plant and will market this technology internationally. But this is just one of the exciting projects we are currently working on.

In general, it is simply important for us to recognize the benefits and added value of new technologies. And we take pleasure in creating technological solutions for a sustainable industry.

Author: Ron Kotrba

Editor, Biobased Diesel Daily®



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