By Marlee Jackson
Renewable diesel made in Alabama and destined for West Coast buyers has an unconventional origin — U.S. soybean farms.
“We use pressure, heat and hydrogen and actually cause a chain reaction to make a product that’s identical to diesel fuel, except it was produced from a new carbon product — soybeans,” said Vertex Energy Executive Vice President Bart Rice.
Soybean oil is the feedstock, or base, of renewable diesel produced at Vertex’s Mobile refinery. The Texas company bought the plant in April 2022, a move that provided continuous employment for over 200 Gulf Coast workers, per Mobile Chamber CEO Bradley Byrne.
While Vertex primarily produces conventional gasoline, jet fuel and diesel at the Mobile refinery, its renewable diesel addition went live this spring. Hundreds of local construction workers rallied to swiftly and safely build the new network of pipes, scaffolding and technology-driven, silo-like reactors in just a year.
Vertex now manufactures up to 8,000 barrels of soy-based renewable diesel daily and made its first commercial sale in June.
“The primary limiting factor on that equipment is the hydrogen we have available,” said Rice, gesturing toward the site’s lone hydrogen plant built in the early 2000s.
Once the planned second hydrogen plant comes on line next year, renewable diesel capacity is expected to reach 14,000 barrels a day, said Mark Blanchard.
Blanchard is Vertex’s manager of planning, analysis and VGO trading, tasked with economic forecasting and nominations for the plant’s base needs. That includes soybean oil for renewable diesel. Their product is different from more commonly known biodiesel, he said. Renewable diesel has the same chemical composition as petroleum diesel, making it compatible with existing diesel engines. Biodiesel must be blended with conventional diesel, he said.
Vertex CEO Benjamin Cowart is a Mobile native. He touted renewable diesel’s sustainability factor during a ribbon-cutting this spring, where guests included Gov. Kay Ivey. During the presentation, he also highlighted the company’s commitment to community, including school engagement projects and Make-A-Wish donations.
“We’re not just cutting ribbons; we’re cutting emissions,” Cowart said. “We’re also carving a new path for this site, this city and the great state of Alabama. The opportunity to bring this kind of innovation to my hometown and Alabama is incredibly meaningful. I believe this is just the beginning, as we progress on our commitment to a cleaner environment by creating a sustainable growth path for the energy transition.”
Soybean oil is Vertex’s chosen feedstock because of availability, economics and sustainability, Blanchard said, though other fats could be used. Options include vegetable oil, animal tallow or distillers corn oil.
Vertex’s soybean oil is a byproduct of soybean-crushing facilities. The soy meal is often used for animal feed; oil is used for cooking or fuel.
While Alabama soybeans are likely used in Vertex’s renewable diesel, the state’s low acreage in contrast to Midwestern powerhouse producers means the feedstock is barged and railed in from a wide circumference.
Alabama farmers harvested 355,000 acres of soybeans in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Total national harvest was 88.34 million acres.
Last year’s Alabama yields averaged 41 bushels an acre. It was a good crop but nowhere large enough to meet Vertex’s demand, said Alabama Farmers Federation Soybean Division Director Carla Hornady. She and soybean farmer-leaders will meet with Vertex staff this month during the Federation’s Farm & Land Expo in Mobile to learn more about the production process — and their seat at the renewable fuel table.
“We’re excited to hear how Vertex uses our soy and see how we can work more directly together,” Hornady said. “The farm economy is tough, so we’re interested to hear proposals that could add more value to Alabama farmers’ products.”
Learn more at VertexEnergy.com.