Rocket Science Meets Biodiesel

In collaboration with the U.S. Navy and Biodiesel Industries, Aerojet-a company that helped put man on the moon-has turned its sights toward biodiesel.
By By Susanne Retka Schill | September 18, 2009
As any home-brewer knows, making biodiesel isn't rocket science. But when rocket science and biodiesel production commingle, new heights in automation and control are achieved. A collaborative effort between U.S. Navy environmental engineers and Biodiesel Industries Inc. was expanded a year ago to include aerospace and defense contractor Aerojet Inc. The same space-age sensing and automation technology that sent men to the moon decades ago is helping propel modular, remote biodiesel production to new heights.

Russell Teall, the founder and CEO of Biodiesel Industries, is well known for his work in developing modular biodiesel systems. In 2003, the Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based company signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center at nearby Port Hueneme, Calif. Since then, one of Biodiesel Industries' modular units has been in use on the naval base, converting waste vegetable oil collected from the mess halls to biodiesel, as ongoing research led to continued improvements of the system. "The navy is interested in modular, deployable, self sustainable systems that can be operated remotely," Teall says.

It isn't obvious how an aerospace company such as Aerojet, accustomed to designing propulsion systems to maneuver the space station, ended up working on biodiesel. "We thought it was a natural fit," says Kathy Robinson, executive director of sustainability for Aerojet. "We have been an energy management and solutions provider for the Department of Defense and the civil aerospace sector for 50 years. We're continually looking for what's new with our customers in terms of emerging requirements." She says DOD's emphasis on distributed fuel production, for tactical and security reasons, has been apparent in the past few years. Robinson is responsible for finding areas where Aerojet's systems engineering and thermal management systems can fit into the energy market, which led her to study a number of alternative fuel paths. Early on, she says, biodiesel was on her radar as a near-term, deployable solution to which Aerojet could provide service. "When I called the Navy, the country's largest user of diesel fuel, they told me to contact Russ," Robinson says.

Teall has been experimenting with every type of feedstock he could acquire for more than a decade, building a database of feedstock characteristics and process reaction results. A one-tenth scale commercial system with flexible configuration was set up at the naval facilities engineering center. It allowed for scaled up production and testing as the team developed a truly feedstock-flexible system producing ASTM quality biodiesel.

Teall says the project took a gigantic leap forward with Aerojet's expertise in integrated system design, fluidic management and control systems development. In August, after only one year with Aerojet onboard, the team announced the successful demonstration of ARIES (automated, real-time, remote, integrated energy system). With a nameplate capacity of 3 MMgy, the modular unit was to go from the fabrication shop to an Aerojet facility for further testing in late August, before moving to the National Environmental Test Site at Naval Base Ventura County, in Port Hueneme, Calif., for additional validation and demonstration.

Real-time sensing is at the core of ARIES' capabilities. The typical ASTM test for glycerin takes 35 to 40 minutes using a gas chromatograph. "That's fine for quality control but not very good for process control," Teall says. "The ability to assess in real time what's going on in the reaction means you can shape the reaction kinetics to drive the reaction forward more quickly." Knowing where the reaction is at any point facilitates automation and helps optimize the process. "Based on tens of thousands of reactions we've conducted over the years, there's a library of intelligence that can be programmed in," he explains. The data collected includes feedstock characteristics such as the oil profile, water, contaminants and other factors, along with resulting impact on the reaction.

The goal has been a system that is completely automated. "We characterize the feedstock that's coming in for the day, dial in the appropriate recipe and start the programming with quality control stops along the way," Robinson says. "There are stop points where the program will come up on the screen, saying, 'Here's what we are reading, do you want to proceed?' While there are opportunities for the operator to interact with the system, it can go from start to finish automatically." Teall initially found the automation challenging. "It takes some getting used to," he says. "Having made biodiesel all these years at different plants across the world, there's a lot of physical and human interface in most plants. The hardest thing for me was to sit there and watch the computer making biodiesel-I have this compulsion to get up and open and close valves."

The remote sensing and automation ensure transesterification is complete, an important step in hitting ASTM specs. "The joy of ARIES is that it's all real-time now," Teall says. "At the end of a transesterification you don't have to wait 30 or 40 minutes to get test results. That's a huge savings of time, and you're assuring ASTM compliance sequentially in-process," verifying water and methanol removal, sulfur content and more. The traditional ASTM tests can be run at the end to verify results for a certificate of analysis. Teall is reluctant to put a number to the efficiency gain until the validation and demonstration data can be compared to existing systems. Preliminarily though, he says hours, not minutes, are shaved off the process.

Remote Operability
Coupling modern communications technology with real-time sensing and automation allows operators to be 100 feet, or 100 miles, away. For the Navy, that means a unit could be deployed anywhere in the world, with technical support coming from a central location. The centralized technical staff can monitor process data and do trends analysis. The plan is for all units to use the same standards of reference, so as problems are solved in one plant the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere. "What we learn in Ventura can be applied in Afghanistan," Teall says.

The U.S. military market alone, with more than 5,000 bases worldwide, could provide a significant market for ARIES. "Policies from the Pentagon state we need to get all facilities energy independent," Robinson says. The Navy has a directive on B20, although Teall says it's exploring the capability of using B100 in tactical and non-tactical vehicles in times of emergency. "There's obviously some challenges in doing that, cold flow being one of them," Teall says. "But if you anticipate that need, the vehicles themselves can be properly configured to operate B100 in cold conditions. The military obviously has the ability to mandate something across its whole fleet, which will obviate the problems."

The two companies see potential beyond military applications. By supplying its own power and designed to be self-sufficient, ARIES has the potential to be deployed in remote, rural regions. "We've done some work in India with the U.S. Agency for International Development," Teall explains. "There are more than 20,000 villages that don't have electricity. They're not on the internet, they don't have telephones. [We have] the ability to help provide electricity not only for the plant but for the surrounding areas." Urban applications, such as remote monitoring of a biodiesel unit in a water treatment facility, also exist.

First, however, validation and demonstration must come, to give numbers to the efficiency gains. The immediate goal is to get final testing of the alpha unit completed for the Navy. Once completed, Teall says he'll finish patent applications for particular process technologies being newly deployed in the unit, and finalize details on a feedstock solution to accompany ARIES.

While biodiesel is a well-known fuel today, Teall recognizes it's not always been this way. "It's gone from having a lot of hurdles such as getting DOE and EPA to recognize it, doing health effects testing, and getting ASTM standards in place," he says. "Now we're addressing feedstock issues. That's part of what the AIRES system will enable us to do-to look at advanced biofuels both in terms of feedstocks and production technologies. We have a very keen interest in algal culture as well as jatropha and other inedible plants. ARIES is part of an integrated energy system-that's the ultimate configuration. Feedstock production has to be vertically integrated, too."

Given the excitement around algae, it's not surprising that developers of a modular, portable biodiesel system designed for waste vegetable oils are looking towards second generation feedstocks. The race to deploy advanced biofuels has begun to take on the flavor of the space race. Teall remembers the initial meetings with Aerojet when they discussed the difficulties of designing a remote-controlled biodiesel processing system. "We put things on the moon," was the response given to Teall from an Aerojet engineer. Teall says the major difference in developing ARIES is, "If a question arose in the control room they could step into the plant and check on it. When in space, the challenge is infinitely more complicated."

Robinson says, "The people at Aerojet working on this are excited to be working in renewable energy. There's a lot of national support. It's almost like the last race to the moon in terms of support in Congress and everywhere we go."

Susanne Retka Schill is assistant editor of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach her at or (701) 738-4922.
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