Biodiesel plants bounce back after fires, explosions

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 16, 2007
Two summer fires and a fatal explosion set back production for three biodiesel producers, although all three are continuing with expansion plans.

A tank exploded and killed a contract welder in a tragic accident Aug. 21 at the Farmers and Truckers Biodiesel LLC plant in Augusta, Ga. Plant co-owner Chuck Pardue said the tank had been purged, and two leak detection systems found no combustible gases before work began to weld a flow meter on a pipe going into a 550-gallon mixing tank. So far, it's being called a freak accident of unknown origin, he said, adding, "One possible theory is that the welder, who had been welding on the tank for several hours, may have superheated the air inside of the tank to cause the tank to explode." The 5 MMgy plant will reopen as soon as the reactor and mixing tank are replaced. The impact of the explosion was limited, Pardue said, "due to the safety devices, leak detection equipment, placement of the chemical storage tank, and the cutoff valves that were installed." Construction on a second 5 MMgy plant in Warrensville, S.C., is scheduled to begin in 2008.

The cause of a fire at Foothills Bio-Energies LLC in Lenoir, N.C., is also a mystery, according to co-owner Randy Dellinger. The Aug. 25 fire started in the containment area around the feedstock tank farm, destroying the tanks. The plant was unoccupied on the Saturday when the fire started and had been shut down for two days prior to the fire for cleanup and a tour, Dillinger said. The ignition source hadn't been determined at press time, but the area didn't contain electrical service or pumps, he said, adding that the flashpoint of the company's poultry fat and soybean oil feedstock is quite high. With the fire contained outside, the 5 MMgy biodiesel plant had relatively minor damages inside. After a review of the plant process and materials handling found no deficiencies, the biodiesel plant started limited production 10 days later using temporary feedstock tanks. "We are in the process of rebuilding the piping," Dellinger said. Foothills Bio-Energies, which started production in September 2006, was in the process of ramping up its production to 3 MMgy by the end of 2007 with the goal of reaching its 5 MMgy capacity by mid-2008.

A July 25 fire at Better Biodiesel Inc. in Spanish Fork, Utah, was caused by a mechanical malfunction in a transfer line within the reactor section, with damage isolated within the reactor container, according to the company. At the time, the 3 MMgy plant was using animal fat as a feedstock to optimize the company's process design. "Fortunately, we were far enough along with the plant optimization to be able to establish initial effectiveness and the baseline for improved design of the new plant," said company Chairman and CEO Ron Crafts. Plans were already in place to begin work on a 10 MMgy expansion this fall. The company hired an independent engineering firm to evaluate the required repairs to the damaged processor and to help finalize the design of the new plant. Better Biodiesel has developed a waterless technology using low-grade feedstocks without the need for preprocessing or post-polishing. It intends to build out the Spanish Fork plant to 100 MMgy.

It has been just over a year since fires were reported in the biodiesel industry. In 2006, two biodiesel plants had fires: Blue Sky Biodiesel, a 1 MMgy facility that had just completed construction in Plymouth, Idaho; and American Biofuels, a plant operating in Bakersfield, Calif. In Bakersfield, a methanol spill was pinpointed as the cause of the fire. In Plymouth, a welder was working on a storage tank when the tank exploded. Both facilities planned to rebuild after the fires.
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