A Lesson in Biodiesel Production

By Darren Wight | August 03, 2007
Standing in the middle of a driveway near feedstock tanks situated on the south side of his new biodiesel plant, Leif Forer tries to gather everyone in the group to begin the tour. As part of his emphasis on outreach and ongoing education, at 10 a.m. the first Friday of every month, Forer guides a group of biodiesel enthusiasts, possible investors, potential customers, interested neighbors and local students through a state-of-the-art biodiesel refinery located in Pittsboro, N.C. Piedmont Biofuels Industrial LLC is the brainchild of Forer and two partners-Rachel Burton and Lyle Estill.

Piedmont Biofuels' founding members met in a college classroom in 2004. Forer, Piedmont's chief engineer, says he didn't really know at the time the career path he would take, but "biodiesel producer" wasn't on his list. Following a brief stint in film school, he entered the chemical engineering field. After graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., he moved to North Carolina and took a job teaching at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. It was here he met Rachel Burton, and they started their relatively unintentional journey into the biodiesel industry.

"My move into the biodiesel industry really happened accidentally," Forer says. "I was teaching at Central Carolina Community College here in Pittsboro. One of my business partners, Rachel Burton, and I thought wouldn't it be fun to teach a biofuels course?'"

The two proposed the course to the school's board and it was approved. Since that first class, the biofuels program has rapidly gained interest and enrollment. The school now offers multiple biofuels classes and is going through the approval process to become part of the North Carolina State Community College system curriculum.

One of the most enthusiastic students in that first class was Lyle Estill, who later brought his brother, Mark, into the fold. Since that first class, Forer has progressed from making biodiesel in Lyle's backyard to operating one of the biggest biodiesel plants in the southeastern United States-one of only three operating in North Carolina.

Not only is it an impressive facility, but it's not every day a college professor goes out into the "real world" and practices what he's been preaching to his students. Forer and his former students formed a limited liability corporation and launched Piedmont Biofuels, which officially went on line in January 2007. It's quickly ramping up production and marketing efforts to create a profitable business with a foundation of quality, sustainability and education.

The Lesson Begins
The plant becomes the new classroom, and Leif Forer is in his element. The plant tour is a key component of the ongoing education at Piedmont and begins promptly at 10 a.m. The tour group follows Forer throughout the entire facility, stopping to allow Forer to provide details of how they produce B100 and describe the many benefits of the renewable fuel. But first, always the teacher, Forer provides a brief history lesson to the group.

"This facility was an abandoned metal alloy plant that happened to be painted in Piedmont colors-green and yellow-so we had to buy it," Forer says. "In hindsight, we might not have purchased it had we taken the time to test the water pressure and had we known what the city water treatment capacities were like. To top it off, we didn't realize at the time the disadvantage of not being located near a rail line. But having said that, we have worked through all those problems and now we have a beautiful place in the country that is a true joy to work at."

The facility looks brand new and extremely clean. However, due to some space limitations, Forer's group had to build tall, narrow reactors to fit into certain areas of the plant. This has no adverse effect on the overall process, and the plant could be upgraded in the future.

Next, Forer covers the initial phases of the biodiesel production process by focusing the tour group's attention to the feedstock tanks located directly behind the processing plant.

"Our feedstock is anything we can get our hands on with the correct quantity, quality and price," he says. "So, we've run chicken, soy and recycled yellow grease from restaurants through our facility. I would love to use other stuff, too. In fact, one of our long-term goals is to work with the local restaurant community higher up in the supply chain. We would buy the oil, then lease it out to restaurants to use for cooking food. We essentially maintain ownership. They can use it to cook the food, degrade the oil a little bit. Then we would bring it back, clean it up and use it for fuel. That creates just one extra layer of use before we turn it into fuel. From an energy balance perspective, I love it. You're not using virgin product. It's already been through a useful life."

Forer then leads the group into one of the large buildings located on the property. He explains that the feedstock is transferred via sliding vane pumps manufactured by Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Blackmer, a leading authority on pump technologies used in biodiesel processing, from the holding tanks to the reactors located in what he calls the "Reactor Room."

"This is where the actual chemistry happens," Forer says. "The first things we do in the morning are load the reactor in the back with oil and bring it up to temperature. Meanwhile, we load the reactor up front with our alcohol and then we take a sample of that oil and test it in the lab. Not all oil is equal. It's all got different profiles and has degraded to various extents. So we need to set our recipe on that particular batch, which is why every single time it goes through the lab."

Once the recipe is set and Piedmont employees know how much sodium methylate they need to meter in, the alcohol catalyst is injected into the hot oil stream and worked in over a couple of stages. The entire reaction from loading to completion is about four hours, with an operational temperature of approximately 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That's the transesterification process," Forer tells the tour-goers. "And what's happening there is that we're tearing apart the oil molecule and swapping alcohols. So glycerin is the alcohol that we're swapping out for methanol."

All of the reactors and settling tanks that Piedmont Biofuels uses to this point are conical in shape. Gravity assists with settling and separating during these different phases. Piedmont will eventually create two, 2,000-gallon batches that will be combined and run as a 4,000-gallon lot of fuel throughout the rest of the production system. The lot is pumped with sliding vane pumps into the adjacent building to be washed.

Proper Pump Selection is Critical
While guiding the group to the washing and drying building, Forer emphasizes the importance of the pumping technologies used in the process. With the proper pump, the plant runs smoothly with little or no downtime. An incorrect pump can grind the production schedule to a halt. This was a lesson Forer says he learned in the process of putting together his plant. Knowing that he wanted the most energy efficient yet productive facility possible, he turned to an expert in the business of flow technologies, Jeff Oakley of OEC Fluid Handling Inc. in Spartanburg, S.C.

"I told Jeff what we were looking for and he recommended sliding vane technology from Blackmer," Forer says. "Based on the information Jeff provided, it was easy to understand that the principles of sliding vane technology were perfectly suited for all stages of the biodiesel production process."

To emphasize his point, Forer points out the Blackmer sliding vane transfer pump on a Piedmont Biofuels delivery truck. "The majority of the pumps used in our plant are Blackmer X or XL Series sliding vane pumps," he says. "In fact, we believe in them so much we even have a Blackmer transfer pump on our truck. We love these pumps because they meet our high standards in all performance categories. I tell everyone in the biodiesel industry that these Blackmer pumps are what you want."

Forer adds, "These pumps are really reliable. I love the fact that you can run Blackmer pumps in both directions and that they have a tremendous amount of suction, which is important in the wintertime," Forer says. "We can clear a line or tank by using the suction capability of a Blackmer pump. Beyond that, maintaining them is quick and easy since we can replace the vanes when necessary without removing the pump from service. When time is money, which it is in this business, this is a very important economic advantage for using vane pumps."

Wash, Dry, Test and Deliver
Forer leads the group into the plant's washing and drying area where contaminants are washed out of the product. Equating it to a shower, Forer explains that warm, softened water is mixed in through the top of the tank. The water falls down via gravity because it's heavier than the fuel. While doing so it collects the contaminants. While this process occurs, air is bubbled up from the bottom of the tank.

"Those air bubbles you can think of as an elevator for the water," Forer says. "So the water sticks to the air, goes up through the fuel, the bubble pops and the water falls back down. So you get this gentle washing up and down."

Once the wash process is complete, lab tests are run to check the contaminant levels. After the product passes the tests, the fuel is dried. Piedmont Biofuels uses the same technology to dry the final product as in the wash process-heat and circulation. Following the drying process, a final polishing is completed by running the product through a coalescent filter for a few hours to remove any particles that might have fallen into the top of the tank.

The final product is loaded via a Blackmer pump into the final product storage tank. Every gallon produced at the Piedmont Biofuels plant eventually runs through the meter at its fueling rack. The rack is located on the exterior wall of the washing and drying area and consists mainly of a steel ladder, safety access platform and loading arm, which are all located under a canopy.

"We generally top-load everything," Forer says. "We can bottom-load with our wet hose, but I'd rather top load." As Forer explains the loading process, a tanker truck rolls into the loading area and the tour group is provided a first-hand lesson in the loading process.

Capacity and Sustainability
When asked about overall production capacity, Forer answers the group by giving Piedmont Biofuels' current and potential plant capacity. "We designed the place to do 1 million gallons per year off of five shifts a week," he says. "So, we had very modest goals starting out for our company. If we throw in a couple extra wash tanks and tack on a couple extra shifts, and work weekends, we could end up somewhere around 4 million gallons per year, which I am confident we could sell every drop of today. We have the wonderful problem of greater demand than capacity. But, we've only been producing at this facility for a handful of months and we're kind of getting up to speed training new operators, working out our shift schedules, etc. Getting the right balance between production, deliveries, all the logistics and the lab work, has taken a little bit of effort."

Beyond perfecting the production process and boosting capacity, Piedmont Biofuels aims for what is perhaps a more noble cause at the core of the biodiesel industry. "Sustainability is at the heart of this project," Forer says. "We are interested in sustainability in all of its forms and biodiesel is a good fit. It's only one part of what we really need to be doing to get more sustainable. We are really interested in local fuel production. I don't think that we need to be going down the road of monolithic centralized energy production. We've done that a few times and we've seen where the weaknesses lie in that system. Hurricane Katrina hit, took out a couple of key components and it gets rough when production comes grinding to a halt. But if you have a decentralized, micro nodal approach to energy production you have a very robust system where a couple of nodes can go out and there's so many others operating that you still have the supply you need to keep the trucks rolling.

Darren Wight is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based writer. He has written for Biodiesel Magazine in previous issues.

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Biodiesel Magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).

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