The push to decarbonize frequently focuses on the transportation sector, which is responsible for the largest share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That has led to increased blending of ethanol into gasoline and the development of several alternative fuels, most notably renewable diesel (RD) and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). But as production of those two fuels accelerates, an often-overlooked byproduct of their creation is beginning to attract more attention: renewable naphtha. In today’s RBN blog, we explain the similarities and differences between traditional naphtha and renewable naphtha, look at how renewable naphtha is produced, and show how it can be used to help refiners, petrochemical companies and hydrogen producers meet their sustainability goals and reduce the carbon intensity (CI) of their products.
Let’s start with the basics. Traditional naphtha is derived from the distillation of crude oil or from the separation of NGLs in a fractionation plant. (The heaviest cut produced from NGL fractionation is typically referred to as natural gasoline and is very similar to the light naphtha produced from crude oil at refineries.) It is most often used in gasoline blending and as a petrochemical feedstock in the production of plastics. On the refinery side of things, naphtha can be directly blended into gasoline, although it typically has low octane and, in the case of light naphtha, high vapor pressure, which limits the amount that can be blended directly into gasoline. Still, light naphtha and heavy naphtha can be sent to a refinery’s isomerization or naphtha reforming units before blending to boost octane, increasing its value as a gasoline blendstock. On the petchem side, it can be used as a feedstock in steam crackers to make ethylene and, ultimately, plastics. Light naphtha has high paraffin levels, which is preferred because it provides better yields than other options; it has varying degrees of sulfur and other impurities. (Naphtha competes with propane and butane as a petrochemical feedstock.)
Renewable naphtha (also referred to as bionaphtha) is most often created as a byproduct of RD and SAF production. (More on that in a bit.) In contrast to traditional naphtha, which can have more variable qualities, it typically has very high paraffin levels and minimal amounts of sulfur and other impurities — important qualities for gasoline blenders and petrochemical producers looking to reduce the CI of their products. It also has a greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint that is 20% to 80% lower than traditional naphtha, with the exact CI typically primarily dependent upon feedstock and the GHG emissions reduction model used. And while no one sets out to make renewable naphtha on its own, it does have two important selling points: it’s a drop-in replacement for traditional naphtha, meaning that it can be inserted into the production stream without any changes to the existing infrastructure, and produces a significant amount of environmental credits when blended into petroleum gasoline. As we noted in our Come Clean series and other blogs, those are the biggest selling points for RD and SAF production, too.
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