Growing demand for glycerin to keep up with supply increases

By Bryan Sims | January 25, 2011

Biodiesel production is expected to pick up in 2011 and, with the implementation of the U.S. EPA’s RFS2 requiring petroleum refiners to blend at least 800 million gallons of biomass-based diesel this year, a steady climb in glycerin volume is anticipated to flood into the marketplace. While glycerin has long been used in a variety of pharmaceutical and industrial applications, multiple research efforts are underway aimed at exploring other cost-effective uses of the biodiesel coproduct.

One of those areas being considered in particular is glycerin’s use as a potentially feasible feedstuff for swine. According to a study led by University of Illinois graduate research assistant Omarh Mendoza, diets for growing-finishing pigs may include up to 15 percent glycerin and achieve similar performance compared to conventional corn/soybean meal diets. The research was published in the Journal of Animal Science.

“We measured the digestible energy content, which is the gross energy content of the feed minus the energy lost in the feces of the animal,” Mendoza said, adding that the swine were fed 97.5 percent refined USP-grade glycerin. The refined glycerin was supplied by Evonik Degusa Corp. “In addition, the energy lost in the urine was also measured to obtain the metabolizable energy content, which is the system currently being used by the U.S. feed industry to measure energy content of feed in swine,” he said.

A growth trial and carcass and equality evaluation were also conducted, according to Mendoza, adding that results showed no adverse effects on meat quality with glycerin compared with those that were on a corn/soy meal diet.

“We measured pH, color, firmness, marbling of the loin muscle, and so forth,” Mendoza said. “We compared all of these values to pigs that were fed with no glycerin. The performance on the live animals and the carcass quality was similar to pigs fed with no glycerin.”

Because crude glycerin is a viscous liquid, the product changes the physical characteristics of the feed. While Mendoza observed swine fed with 15 percent glycerin levels, he stressed that dietary inclusion of 5 percent or more could result in feed flowability issues. This is a challenge that must be addressed before glycerin is incorporated into U.S. commercial feed systems, he added.  

“Anything higher than that will create issues with the current feeding systems in the U.S.,” Mendoza said. “Most feed systems in the U.S. are equipped for a dry-feed, whereas Europe uses more liquid feeding systems.”

He added, “With the expansion of the biofuel industry, glycerin looks to be a viable alternative feedstuff. There’s still interest in the industry. If the price allows and the growth performance of the pigs isn’t compromised, [glycerin] could be a feasible ingredient.”

As more biodiesel plants are expected to come online this year, many will be open to finding new markets and uses for their glycerin. One of them, Ames, Iowa-based biodiesel producer and marketer Renewable Energy Group Inc., is expected to be a leading supplier of glycerin into the market. According to Dave Elsenbast, vice president of supply chain at REG, the company predicts glycerin production volumes will ramp up as new applications of the product rise.

“We think there will be more supply in 2011 as the biodiesel industry gets ramped up for RFS2,” Elsenbast said. “But, we think that there’s going to be a lot of continued new demands that hit the glycerin market that will be a good off-take for these additional supplied as they come on.”

REG, which owns a network of five operating biodiesel plants with the capacity to produce more than 160 million pounds of glycerin annually, predicts more than 700 million pounds of glycerin is expected to hit the market in 2011. That’s a near 59 percent spike in glycerin supply compared to the 427 million pounds of crude glycerin produced in 2009.

While novel uses of glycerin are expected to help consume the additional supply of rising volumes, Elsenbast noted that supply and demand factors dictate the market price for crude glycerin prices this year. Historically, the market price for crude glycerin swung from 5 cents per pound in January 2010 to 15 cents per pound in December.

“Our expectation is that the new demand hitting the market will keep some stability in the market and off-take the higher supplies as we go throughout the year,” Elsenbast said. “We’re not anticipating great [price] volatility in the market.”

Along with rising supply and demand for glycerin will come premiums on quality assurance of the product for end use, such as for feed ingredient applications.   

“I think some of the industrial uses, as well as for feed uses, in this day and age everybody is looking for quality assurance, consistency of supply, consistency of quality,” Elsenbast said. “[End-users] want to be dealing with suppliers who have been in the business for some time and really know how important it is for consumers of glycerin to see the same quality load after load.”

Elsenbast noted that REG has noticed an uptick in interest from various biodiesel producers in the country reaching out to the company to help them identify downstream markets, and for new uses of their glycerin product. “We get a lot of phone calls about the new uses, the new consumers, as well as some of the biodiesel producers who have been either up or down, or haven’t been producing in a while,” he said. 

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