A Proven Biodiesel Process Technology Track Record
In September, dozens of biodiesel producers from around the world gathered in Vienna, Austria, not for a conference or exhibition, but to celebrate the milestone occasion of one company, a pioneer whose engineering and technological achievements forever changed the path of this industry. BDI-BioEnergy International AG, the renowned biodiesel process technology provider based in Styria, Austria, has grown from a team of five in its first days to employing 125 staff and engineers. The company has built 30 new biodiesel plants across the globe in the past 20 years, mostly multifeedstock, while retrofitting many others. Its influence spans several continents, including Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. “From waste to value” has long been BDI’s philosophy, and its benchmark technology paved the way for multifeedstock processing and use of low-cost, problematic material.
“In 1996, no ‘food vs. fuel’ discussion existed yet,” says Wilhelm Hammer, the founder of BDI, “but I was already focusing on used cooking oil (UCO) and animal fat from the rendering industry. Any fresh vegetable oil was very costly and the biodiesel produced out of it was by no means able to compete with mineral diesel.” Hammer says when biodiesel first took off in Europe, there were many—too many—very simple production technologies offered. “These technology providers often had no serious background and were promising a lot, but in the end not fulfilling the required biodiesel standards,” he says. “Looking back, these competitors harmed development of biodiesel and made it difficult for serious companies like BDI to develop the market. Malfunctioning biodiesel plants certainly had a bad influence on the reputation of this upcoming technology, and customers often were left alone with their problems in operation.”
BDI was born from Vogel & Noot’s biodiesel division, one man’s vision and a resolute partnership with key individuals. Hammer joined Vogel & Noot in 1995 to help develop the biodiesel market. Helmut Gossler, another founder of BDI, was a technician at Vogel & Noot and participated in the construction of two big plants. “Helmut had a very practical view on things,” Hammer says. “He took me—a technical greenhorn—under his wing and tried to make me understand what I was supposed to be selling. He supported me right from the very first day and as time passed, we step-by-step complemented each other as a matter of course.” Hammer diligently tried convincing the board that the future of biodiesel technology was the ability to process waste feedstock. “To their own regret, they did not follow my vision,” he tells Biodiesel Magazine. “For them, the biodiesel business had no real future. But, right away they offered me a chance to buy the company. Completely surprised, I asked for a day off to reflect on and digest their proposal. I immediately realized to have a realistic chance of eventually getting my investment back, I needed support from Helmut, Michael Koncar, the founder and head of our longtime partner company VTU, and Martin Mittelbach from University of Graz, the ‘father’ of Vogel & Noot’s biodiesel technology. They all immediately agreed. Helmut and Michael even went a step further and agreed without hesitating to become my partners if I set up a new company. So in the end, it took me about a half-hour to accept the offer. I bought the company including all rights and patents.” On Sept. 12, 1996, BDI-BioDiesel International GesmbH was established with Gossler and VTU as partner and shareholder.
A Different Approach
Realizing the waste-to-value concept drove BDI from the start. A handful of biodiesel plants was established under Vogel & Noot’s commission, including what Hammer says was the world’s first UCO biodiesel plant, a revamping of an existing rapeseed oil biodiesel facility in Mureck, Austria, from 1994-’96, still producing today. “Especially in the aftermath of the food vs. fuel discussion, the biodiesel industry is still alive because of its waste disposal capabilities for high-risk material,” Hammer says. “Our most successful customers handle hazardous waste material—for example Category 1 fats—by producing hygienically, absolutely safe and environmentally friendly biodiesel. This hygienic service still has potential to grow globally.”
BDI’s first contract was in the U.S., at Griffin Industries, a rendering company now merged into Dar Pro Solutions “with a very challenging quality of fat,” Hammer says. After arranging a breakfast meeting with Dennis Griffin in Cincinnati at the airport Holiday Inn, Hammer asked for a visit to the rendering plant. “He refused by uttering a simple but convincing ‘no,’” Hammer says. Upon leaving, Griffin told Hammer he’d hear from them soon, and a week later, Brad Albin, now vice president of manufacturing for Renewable Energy Group Inc. but then with Griffin Industries, telephoned BDI. A few months later BDI’s first contract was signed for what became the world’s first animal fat biodiesel plant.
From the beginning, BDI’s services included feedstock evaluation, economic feasibility, authority/basic/detailed engineering, purchasing, process control systems (PCS), supervision of construction and start-up. Over the years, BDI developed the capabilities to act as an EPC contractor, and more and more supported its customers in the project development phase.
Together with its partner company M&R, BDI developed a tailor-made process control system—Automation X—for biodiesel plant control. In the late 1990s, this system was superior to other traditional systems, Hammer says, especially regarding batch reactor control and visualization. “Certainly, over the past decades other PCS have caught up,” Hammer says. “Nevertheless, our customers are still very fond of the system, due to its flexibility—the easy integration of existing software or other PCS, which can be important for retrofit projects—reliability and simplicity, when it comes to changes or updates.” Hammer tells Biodiesel Magazine that process controls are the heart of BDI’s technology.
Markus Dielacher, BDI’s chief technology officer, says BDI’s plants are largely automated, so the operator’s main job is to monitor the entire process and intervene only in case a deviation occurs. “We use a so-called soft process logic controller instead of a hard process logic controller,” he says. “In other words, this electronic item is integrated in our software. We just have one server, less interfaces and therefore less problems. To make the system operationally reliable, we use a second server in redundancy.” The software is especially designed for batch units and tracking each individual batch in the system. “This is not standard in other process control systems,” Dielacher says. “This gives the operator the opportunity not only to warrant safe operation of the plant but also the security of being able to follow product quality.” Trending tools, such as temperature or pressure, are standard at a BDI plant, “not an option like with other systems,” Dielacher adds. “Trending tools are a big help in case of error diagnostics.”
Edgar Ahn performed doctoral work at Vogel & Noot in biodiesel scale-up and joined BDI in 1997 as being responsible for R&D. After Gossler and Hammer retired, Ahn became chief sales officer and a member of BDI’s management board in 2011. Today Ahn is responsible for R&D, sales and marketing, and innovation management. In its mission to create value from waste, unwanted side reactions from the presence of soluble, unwanted impurities and components in low-cost feedstock had to be understood and dealt with.
“With our deep understanding regarding the complex reaction system including unwanted side reactions, BDI was able to develop and integrate the right counter measurements within its process concept,” Ahn says. “The wider the variety of feedstock—and its unwanted components—got over the years at our customers’ projects, the more our R&D had to deal with it. Therefore, BDI accumulated a huge data bank about all different kinds of vegetable- and animal fat-based feedstock, and how to cost-effectively turn them into high-quality biodiesel.”
As quality standards tightened, the number of necessary purification steps grew within the BDI production concept, Ahn says. “It was also necessary to find the right interaction between the chemical reaction steps—esterification and transesterification—and the subsequent purification steps, especially with the BDI-patented concept of recycling fatty acid streams from the glycerin purification steps back into the reaction steps,” he says. “So the overall system got more and more complex.” BDI sought development of a system in which the catalyst (potassium-based) is recyclable and doesn’t end up in glycerin, leading to cumbersome glycerin purification steps. “Here, the development of the RepCat system certainly marked a milestone in the R&D history of BDI,” Ahn says.
Today BDI proudly focuses its biodiesel efforts on its multifeedstock technology for complete turnkey solutions and its retrofit program to improve existing plants mainly built by competitors. Retrofitting involves a thorough analysis of the existing system, developing an upgraded system by, as Ahn puts it, “changing recipes, introducing superior process steps and units, or adaptations to existing equipment,” he says. “It’s always a tailor-made solution, within the given boundaries.”
BDI’s multifeedstock development concept began in the early 1990s at Vogel & Noot in the design of the Mureck UCO plant. “The BDI team got addicted to looking for even cheaper feedstock, and to adopt our technology concept to be able to convert them into biodiesel according to the strictest biodiesel standards,” Ahn says. BDI’s feedstock pretreatment is a combination of mechanical separation steps and washing steps combined with chemical reactions. “The way of combining these steps depends on the type and quality of feedstock,” Ahn says. “Certainly all insoluble impurities must be separated first. Sometimes a chemical ‘attack’ or preconditioning is necessary to increase the efficiency of the subsequent washing steps. I think this particular know-how is part of what makes BDI technology the benchmark technology in multifeedstock biodiesel production.” BDI’s process utilizes sulfuric acid in esterification. “For higher FFA-containing feedstock, we recommend a high-pressure esterification unit,” Ahn says, adding this can be part of a retrofit program as well.
For the main reaction, BDI uses continuous flow in the few pure vegetable oil plants it has built so far, but for its specialty in multifeedstock design, BDI relies on its optimized batch. “We need the flexibility to adapt—from batch to batch—to changing compositions in the feedstock and to be able to react with appropriate changes in the necessary recipes, which will be done automatically by our PCS system,” Ahn says. “Our alkaline catalyst-based transesterification is carried out in two, optimized concerted stages.”
Finally, for fuel purification, BDI’s standard multifeedstock concept employs a concerted combination of washing steps and biodiesel distillation. “Our evaluation of ion exchange or resin purification steps showed many disadvantages when it comes to handling low-quality feedstock, and are economically not as feasible as our proven systems,” Ahn says.
Ahn says landmark inventions BDI researchers provided to the biodiesel industry are its post-esterification and recycling of fatty acid phase to the esterification/transesterification process, increasing yield tremendously and “often copied by competitors, but never reached;” its optimized biodiesel distillation system, guaranteeing the lowest yield losses; RepCat, the biodiesel production system for high-FFA, low-quality feedstock with recyclable catalyst and “unsurpassed simple operability;” and many more process optimization steps, including algae production through its spinoff company BDI Biolife Science, and a new production and purification system for handling high-sulfur feedstock such as brown grease.
BDI continues to influence biodiesel production efficiencies worldwide, as evidenced by its ongoing project at Argent Energy in the U.K. and its recently completed expansion and upgrade—part of its retrofit program—at Crimson Renewable Energy LP in Bakersfield, California. Originally named BDI-BioDiesel International, the company changed its name a few years ago to reflect its broader capabilities when it got into the biogas market.
The company went public 10 year ago but it plans to delist since trading in BDI shares is “very illiquid,” says Andreas Erhart, BDI’s chief financial officer. As such, wild swings in stock prices unlinked to BDI’s financial situation plus high administrative and other related costs cannot be justified, Erhart says. Furthermore, the required transparency jeopardizes otherwise confidential information. Erhart says the operational activities of BDI will not be affected by delisting.
Ahn says BDI will continue adapting its multifeedstock process to take in even more difficult feedstock, such as black grease from wastewater treatment plants, adding that a patent has been filed on treatment of high-sulfur material. BDI also holds strong hope for its BioCrack process, a second-generation effort to coprocess lignocellulosic feedstock into renewable diesel at existing oil refineries. He says growth in waste-based biodiesel opportunities abound in Asia and the U.S. “In the U.S. we have seen in recent months a growing interest in retrofitting biodiesel plants and there is even project development for new plants going on,” Ahn says. “But nobody can predict what influence the election of Donald Trump will have on the currently slightly growing biofuel industry in the U.S.”
While Hammer and Gossler are now retired as CEO and chief technology officer, respectively, they remain major shareholders and stay active in the company. “We regularly have a working lunch with our board members or supervisory board to exchange ideas,” Hammer says. “Even though we are the major shareholders, we do not want to interfere in the daily business operations.”
At BDI’s gala 20-year anniversary celebration in Vienna, Hammer thanked his customers, many of whom were in the room, for giving him their trust and time to solve problems. He tells Biodiesel Magazine BDI has a good team that knows what to do, and knows these very simple rules: “Cheap can be very expensive in the end,” he says. “This is not only valid for us when specifying equipment for a plant, but also for the customer. And do not believe in miracles when you do not follow this simple procedure. And finally, carefully check the people and company you are going to work with.”
Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine