Out of Many Models Rises One Fuel

This past year saw greater diffusion of novel production techniques worldwide, reaffirming the notion that this trade's process model is myriad, and its base is diverse.
By Ron Kotrba | December 15, 2006
The sheer variety of fats and oils allows for the development of a diverse production base in the biodiesel industry. On one end of the spectrum, large greenfield plants developed by sophisticated builders like Renewable Energy Group Inc. (REG) are steadily coming on line. In the United States, large-scale continuous processors like these often take soy oil in the front and push ASTM-quality biodiesel out the back. Three REG-built refineries are already in operation, with four more under construction and two in the project development phase. With that much product in the pipeline, REG's commercial model of success should continue to play a major role in this industry's build-out.

On the other end of the spectrum are systems designed and used by companies championing self-contained conversion units, some built to handle extremely cheap and often abundant waste grease streams-staying away from the highly competitive market for virgin oils altogether. North American Biofuels Corp. (NABFC) is operating its 1 MMgy pilot conversion outfit on Long Island, N.Y., located within waste management company Russel Reid's water treatment site. The primary feedstock for the pilot plant is brown trap grease. The system, which is self-contained in a sea-land container and self-powered by a Detroit Diesel generator burning its own biodiesel, is capable of hooking up with duplicate systems to expand production on the fly. Apparently commercial-ready, the company plans to capitalize on the plentiful urban feedstocks of brown trap and black sewer greases by deploying its units on the populous East Coast through new partnerships with large sewage treatment facilities that will provide a good source of cheap, high-volume waste stocks. NABFC has several patents pending on its proprietary conversion process.

GreenStar Products Inc.-former owner of American Biofuels, the Bakersfield, Calif., plant where a methanol-induced explosion ceased operations indefinitely-recently announced plans to build containerized production systems in Glenns Ferry, Idaho. The company also announced plans this year to develop what it calls the first carbon dioxide-neutral biodiesel plant. Natural gas, electricity and methanol are three staples for most biodiesel refineries, but GreenStar plans to change that model. "Our proprietary continuous flow waterless process requires less than one-third the electrical energy to operate versus existing batch plants," GreenStar President Joseph LaStella says. "Therefore, we have decided to furnish our own electric generators, which will run on our own biodiesel." He also notes that the Glenns Ferry site is located within 200 yards of a cogeneration power plant. "We are in negotiations to utilize some of the waste heat from that plant," he says, adding that existing boilers for production will be backups-and when needed, biodiesel will fuel the boilers. LaStella also says ethanol, rather than methanol largely refined from natural gas, will be used to make its biodiesel even greener.

International Processing
Headquartered near Paris, Axens licensed the use of its solid, heterogeneous catalyst technology, called Esterfip-H, to a handful of international biodiesel plants in 2006. The novel catalyst eliminates the use of sodium methylate, sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, which act as a catalyst in transesterification. Thus, the unique system also wipes out the need to recover these consumed materials from solution, reducing waste streams. The first commercial biodiesel refinery to use Esterfip-H was built by Diester Industries in Siete, France, which started operations in March. Axens' Jay Ross told Biodiesel Magazine that since commercial production began last spring, things have gone well for the most part. "This is a first-of-a-kind plant, so we expected some issues to arise," Ross says, noting that licensing of its Esterfip-H catalyst was suspended for a short time to assess any performance glitches after the French plant's start-up. Ross says licensing has resumed since the suspension. Glitches aside, the uncommon catalyst hasn't stopped the plant from exceeding nameplate capacity by 20 percent. "Overall, the black box is working perfectly," Ross says. "There are a few things going on inside that we don't quite understand just yet."

Ross confirms that three more biodiesel refineries are slated to use Axens' catalyst system. One is a plant in Stenungsund, Sweden, designed to produce 160,000 tons a year (approximately 48 MMgy). The facility is currently under construction, and commissioning is planned for the first quarter of 2007. A U.S.-based plant announced its intentions to implement this conversion approach, too-the first biodiesel refinery to do so stateside. Beatrice Biodiesel LLC, a subsidiary of U.S. Biofuels Inc., wholly owned by Australian Ethanol Ltd., announced its decision to implement Axens' novel technology in a 50 MMgy plant currently under development 30 miles south of Lincoln, Neb. The facility is expected to begin biodiesel production some time in 2007. The third project, a 15 MMgy biodiesel refinery in Spain, is also licensed to use Esterfip-H. Ross says this plant is expected to be operational by the first or second quarter of 2007.

In Ontario, Biox Corp.'s one-of-a-kind refinery began commercially producing biodiesel this year. David Boocock, of the University of Toronto helped to make this possible. He discovered that particular inert cosolvents, resident during the conversion reaction of feedstocks with high free fatty acid contents, provide real cost-savings benefits-and it's lightning-fast. Biox first initialized small-scale production and testing of its distinct process five years ago in a 1 MMly (264,000 gallons per year) pilot rig. The company describes its technique as one that produces an "oil-rich, one-phase" system of acid-catalyzed esterification and base-catalyzed transesterification, yielding a 1:1 conversion ratio of feedstock in to biodiesel out. Biox proved out its process and then built its first commercial-scale plant in Hamilton, Ontario. The 60 MMly (nearly 16 MMgy) refinery started production in the summer of 2006. Biox touts that its process provides capital and operational cost-savings of up to 40 percent and 50 percent, respectively, compared with conventional processing.

EarthFirst Americas created a stir in late 2005 and early 2006. The company, a division of EarthFirst Technologies Inc., began importing palm-oil-based biodiesel to the United States through the port of Tampa, Fla. In a joint venture with La Fabril, a large Ecuadorian palm oil distribution company, EarthFirst has been conventionally transesterifying palm oil at La Fabril's former margarine plant since 2005. The company shipped a "catalytically activated vacuum distillation" (CAVD) pilot system from the United States to La Fabril's Manta, Ecuador, site. The pilot CAVD unit was scheduled to operate alongside of conventional transesterification processing at the Ecuadorian facility. According to an earlier report by Biodiesel Magazine, EarthFirst describes its CAVD process as being similar to pyrolysis in a vacuum, but more refined. EarthFirst didn't respond to repeated requests for an update on these activities.

Research and Development
The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) patented its in situ method of biodiesel production this year. Developed by ARS scientists Michael Haas, Thomas Foglia and William Marmer, this approach to processing allows producers to make biodiesel from virtually any lipid-bearing component, including flaked soybeans. It also eliminates the need for hexane extraction-the most common, large-scale method of oil recovery during the crushing process. At the American Oil Chemists' Society's (AOCS) 2006 meeting in St. Louis, Haas, who is also an AOCS chairman, discussed the economics of this novel technique. One drawback, as indicated by the economic modeling, is that there are significantly higher utility costs involved in this technique, compared with traditional processes because of the elevated energy levels required to recoup the high volume of excess methanol. Therefore, Haas says alcohol reduction is critical to making in situ transesterification economically competitive.

John Massingill, of Texas State University developed an advanced fiber-based neutralization process that could eliminate biodiesel producers' need to centrifuge. Lab-scale trials show advantages to using this trademarked Fiber-Film technology, according to Massingill, who was unavailable for additional comment but presented a summary at this year's AOCS conference. The process offers fast, clean reactions as a result of the short contact times needed on the high surface-area medium. Massingill says results showed a 90 percent removal of free fatty acids in neat oils, up to 1 percent by volume. His research showed that reduced energy consumption, and the elimination of capital and maintenance costs associated with centrifuging, are two additional benefits that could be experienced in commercial applications.

Enzyme-maker Diversa Corp. recently announced U.S. EPA approval of its trademarked Purifine enzyme, which could have applications for biodiesel producers. According to Diversa, Purifine is a novel approach to degumming oils, or the removal of phospholipids from unrefined feedstocks. While biodiesel companies utilizing refined virgin oils may not find the need for such enzymes, biodiesel processors using lower-quality feedstocks-and oilseed processors-may indeed find value in such a development.

Ultimately, the sieve of time-and the motion of the markets-will sift out those biodiesel production models and processes that are unable to endure the rigors of commercial applications. Until then, however, this industry's diverse base is a trait to embrace. n

Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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