China's Grease Monkey plant nears completion

By | January 10, 2007
The world's third-largest ethanol-producing nation, the People's Republic of China, is working to get its biodiesel industry established-with or without governmental pressure. Businessman and biodiesel producer William Kao said he acknowledges ethanol's premier placement in China's biofuels agenda and is committed to completing the first of perhaps many commercial-scale biodiesel refineries under the Grease Monkey name, in a culture where monkeys are revered with esteem. Kao anticipated the start-up of his 3.3 MMgy Grease Monkey No. 1-after 10 months of construction-to occur in February in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen, Fujian Province. As the name implies, the plant will be refining various waste greases.

Kao grew up in New Zealand, obtained a graduate degree from Duke University in North Carolina in the late '90s and, ultimately, moved to China from Chicago so that he could help tend to his father's hotel business. He heard about methyl esters at Duke, but he thought biodiesel might have been "too green and not economically viable" for the United States then. "I wondered whether the radically different Chinese economy [could] make biodiesel viable," Kao told Biodiesel Magazine.

Severe brownouts in the Fujian and Guandong provinces' coastal cities during the summers of 2003 and 2004 forced many manufacturers there to buy diesel-powered generators to keep their respective operations going. "This put tremendous pressure on the supply of diesel," Kao said-a supply since replenished with bootlegged diesel by way of Hong Kong, causing biodiesel production to lose some of the economic ground it gained there this past year.

Before the recent flood of illegal product, however, Kao said he thought making fuel for the generators from the hotel restaurant's waste greases was an appealing solution to the once-high diesel fuel prices caused by the 2003-'04 brownouts. "I began my research in late October 2004," he said. Starting in a lab with five-liter beakers, Kao and associates experimented with virgin rapeseed oil, deep fryer oil (yellow greases), brown greases and gutter (black) greases. "Having some success in the lab, we built a 25-liters (7-gallons) per-batch reactor on the 13th of November 2004," he said. "After many alterations and additions, today it is a three-metric-tons (900-gallons) per-day pilot plant."

It was when Kao wanted to increase capacity by 40 times that he knew it was time to call in the experts. Rather than one 25-liter (7-gallon) reactor, he wanted to install four 250-liter (66-gallon) reactors. "I invited a Mr. Lin to be my consultant to take over research, engineering, plant design and operation," Kao said. "He had just recently retired as a [vice president] after 25 years in a major food company in Taiwan." Nearing press time, Kao was preparing for a meeting with George Wight and Jonathan McDermott from Wight Group-an energy company based in Illinois-to discuss the possibility of working together on what could result in many more Grease Monkeys to come. "I had planned to build two [plants] in five years," Kao said. "But if Wight [Group] is interested, who knows? One in every city in China is not unreasonable."
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