The 5 Ps

By Ron Kotrba | November 21, 2011

In this record year of U.S. biodiesel production, there have been fewer instances of biodiesel plant fires making headlines than in previous high-volume production years, but the industry isn’t entirely without its black marks in 2011. A sampling of the plant fires reported in the news this year include a blaze this May at the co-located facilities of American Biodiesel Energy Inc. and North American Powder Coatings near Erie, Pa.; a fire at Viesel Fuel in Martin County, Fla., in late May; and a late July fire at Tennessee Bio Energy in Coffee County, Tenn. 

Despite the biodiesel conversion process being relatively straightforward and, for lack of a better word, simple, biodiesel plants are chemical processing facilities. The same precautions, safety protocols and preventative maintenances that are required at petrochemical refineries are also necessary at biodiesel production facilities. The industry has come a long way in improving its safety image over the years, but there is always room for improvement. I’m reminded of a presentation given in Houston at the International Biorefining Conference & Trade Show, where Rich Chmielewski, the biofuels marketing manager for Siemens Industry Inc., said his father always told him to remember the five Ps of life: proper planning prevents poor performance. What a great line, and surely those are words to live by.

Preventative maintenance is a good way to avoid process downtime, and everyone knows that when your plant isn’t running, you’re not making money. And although safety protocols and training are huge factors in helping prevent accidents, maintenance is not just about running a profitable business, it can nip potential safety issues in the bud. As Jatrodiesel President Raj Mosali, this month’s Talking Point columnist, says, maintenance logs are a knowledge base and they should be kept as current and detailed as possible. Mosali also says a common point of failure for automation instrumentation is not the actual instrument, but the wiring. Poor wiring at a chemical processing plant where methanol and vapors may be present is a serious hazard. “At a minimum, automation devices and instruments should be looked at periodically as part of a maintenance schedule,” he says. “Regular checks have to be performed to make sure the wiring is intact and no process liquids are leaking onto the wiring.” In his column on page 8, “Don’t Overlook Plant Maintenance,” Mosali gives a line-item account of what should be done to which pieces of equipment, and how often. Thanks Raj, for your expertise.

And remember, be safe as we cap off the industry’s most productive year yet.

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