Pioneering Achievements

Biodiesel Magazine spotlights eight companies—four process technology providers, two commodity firms, a blending equipment manufacturer and an adsorbent supplier—forging new paths in their respective fields.
By Ron Kotrba | May 23, 2018

WWS Trading
For more than 25 years, WWS Trading has been a family-owned commodity merchandising firm buying and selling fats, oils and proteins. “Trading is only part of what we do,” says Tyler Storlie, whose mother, Wendy Weihe-Storlie, started the company in 1992—the year he was born. “We offer a full-package service.” Storlie joined WWS a year ago bringing the company a younger perspective on technology integration and marketing. Storlie says WWS makes the process of buying and selling easier by matching new buyers with suppliers, fetching better pricing and finding profitable substitutions. “We work to lower prices for everyone and optimize the market,” he says. “And we take care of the logistics. It saves our customers a lot of time and money.”

Trucking is a market within a market. “We source from a huge number of carriers and capitalize on their capabilities, rates and locations to draw better prices,” Storlie says, adding that much juggling and relationship management goes into logistics. “We’ve come to learn about the different carriers we work with—which lanes they prefer to run, where headaches or bottlenecks show up—and over time we’ve built a data base of that information. We optimize that system to meet demand and keep prices low. People trust us to handle it. We get ahead of issues before they happen.”

Mark Napier, a senior trader with WWS for 13 years, says trucking is especially difficult today, with mandates limiting driving hours and less available labor. “Call us, tell us what you want, get us numbers and dates, and that’s all you have to worry about,” he says. “We have a whole team dedicated to finding trucks and we have longstanding relationships with the carriers.”

WWS also helps with cash flow and risk mitigation. “We carry credit insurance, which allows us to do a few things,” Storlie says. “We can guarantee on-time payment to our suppliers, mitigate our exposure, and provide more generous payment terms to our customers.” The company also provides market advising. “We’re plugged in and can sense where prices are going,” Storlie says, “so we can tip off customers and suppliers to trends we see.”

WWS services biodiesel producers of all sizes. “We offer competitive pricing and a large network of suppliers,” Napier says, adding that biodiesel producers surviving the industry’s “culling” have become more conservative in their bids. “They use our networks to help with that,” he says. WWS not only provides feedstock to biodiesel producers, but it also sources their glycerin and fatty acids and finds buyers.

The company was founded on the model of service. “If we’re not helping our customers make money, there’s no reason for them to use us,” Napier says. “Finding the best deal for them is the best deal for us.” 

Third Coast Commodities
Third Coast Commodities was founded in 2013 by Paul Dickerson. Then Dan Weiss came on board. “They came out of the trenches,” says Rob McHugh, a Third Coast junior trader. “And me, I learned to make fuel from used cooking oil 10 years ago and operated a small collection company, Chicago Biofuels, working with Loyola University Chicago’s biodiesel program.” This boots-on-the-ground experience and early work with Loyola allowed Third Coast to build solid relationships with vendors, customers, and students, graduates and faculty of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability.

“We’ve found that students and graduates of the institute possess the right DNA to support our trading partners beyond transportation, marketing, hedging and price discovery, to support the more meticulous requirements of the biodiesel industry—particularly in regulatory compliance,” McHugh says. “We’ve been very impressed with their skill sets, maturity and acumen—and we hope to maintain our relationship with Loyola well into the future. What these students do academically can springboard into real-world experience here and beyond.” Case in point: Gabrielle Habeeb.

Third Coast was privileged to work with and hire Habeeb, a graduate of the institute who started as a Third Coast intern. At Loyola, Habeeb researched invasive crustaceans in Chicago’s waterways. “My analytical background prepared me for the challenges at Third Coast,” Habeeb says. “Third Coast’s fast-changing environment taught me adaptability and the ability to multitask that made me an appealing candidate for the Natural Resources Defense Council,” where she begins working this spring. “Everyone at Third Coast wishes Gabrielle the best at her new position at NRDC,” McHugh says. “Third Coast can hire only so many Loyola graduates. We hope other companies in the industry will utilize the university’s great resources and incredible talent.”

Many small businesses suffer from inadequate resources. “Primarily deficits in capital translate into a deficit in human capital,” McHugh says. “We support our trading partners in these specific areas by offering guidance, resources and time to reach very specific goals, and to mitigate as much risk as possible.”

As evidenced, Third Coast is more than a commodity trader and merchandiser. The company is a relationship builder and maintains that people—not profit—come first. And while doing the right thing is its own reward, collateral benefits follow. “We stick to our word, make things right and we’re always willing to navigate unforeseen hurdles in any operation,” McHugh says.

Trading partners turn to Third Coast for these reasons, and for its belief in biodiesel and best practices in responsible, transparent chains of custody. “The industry deserves all the support it gets,” McHugh says. “It hasn’t been earned easily and we’re proud of the contributions we’ve made. We think highly of the industry, the people in it, and the quality clean-energy fuel that biodiesel is. If the students coming out of Loyola are any guidepost, then the future looks bright for our industry.”

Air Liquide Engineering & Construction
Air Liquide Engineering & Construction has been instrumental in oleochemical and biodiesel plant development over the years. In 2007, Air Liquide acquired Lurgi Group and its decades of development in oils and fats processing technologies. The firm has delivered more than 300 extraction and refining facilities, ranging from 100 tons per day (tpd) to 6,000 tpd. “We have built more than 70 oleochemical plants in the past 15 years,” says Etienne Sturm, business development director at Air Liquide Engineering & Construction in Houston. “All of them are still in operation.”

Sixteen are complete fatty acid plants with feed capacities up to 600 tpd. “Our teams have been involved in plant expansion and upgrades as our customers grow,” he adds. “We’ve built 12 fatty alcohol plants, 28 glycerin recovery and pharma-grade glycerin distillation plants, including the world’s largest distillation unit of 600 tpd, and 75 biodiesel plants.”

Making recent headlines is Air Liquide Engineering & Construction’s agreement with Cargill to engineer and supply a 60 MMgy biodiesel plant in Wichita, Kansas, using its Lurgi process technology. “We established the current industry norm of 60 MMgy, still recognized across the industry today,” Sturm says. “Through our R&D, we have been developing oleochemistry that adds value for our customers.”

Air Liquide’s developments include technologies for on-spec, sediment-free biodiesel, even from feedstocks with 100 percent free fatty acids; a low-pressure process for fatty alcohols (around 75 bar); methyl ester hydrolysis; and glycerin to bio propylene glycol (Bio PG). Air Liquide’s aspirations for the North American market are supporting its biodiesel technology, expanding implementation of its solvent extraction technology, and further developing its commercially proven Bio PG technology.

“Our solvent extraction technology—Lurgi Sliding Cells—is well-suited for multifeedstock operations because of its advanced control features and ability to handle high levels of fines,” Sturm says, adding that Air Liquide has built more than 200 units worldwide as large as 6,000 tpd. “We want our customers to benefit from its flexibility in operations and feedstock, higher safety standards and higher efficiency.”

Air Liquide’s Bio PG technology converts low-value crude glycerin into high-value propylene glycol worth about 70 cents a pound. “This technology provides a higher return on investment for owners—over 20 percent—and is commercially proven, safe and more competitive than traditional propylene glycol,” Sturm says.

Sturm, who’s been with Air Liquide for 20-plus years, says Air Liquide brings a one-stop-shop to the U.S. market for all technologies—from oil extraction to various oleochemicals. “We excel in process integration and optimization, and we’re the only technology supplier to possess such a variety of technologies,” he says. “Air Liquide Engineering & Construction is a center of expertise for project execution. We can deliver full engineering and procurement if necessary, including the process guarantee. This represents a step forward for owners who want to reduce project risk.”

After engineering and building 18 biodiesel plants with Jatrodiesel, Rahul Bobbili decided to go a different way and invest in his own vision. RPS-Renewable Process Solutions was born. “My vision is to diversify and give customers options,” Bobbili says. “Every plant is looking at how to gain value from products they’re producing.”

When Bobbili formed RPS, Calgren Renewable Fuels’ biodiesel project in Pixley, California—a 5 MMgy supercritical biodiesel plant co-located next to its 57 MMgy ethanol refinery—was given a choice to continue construction with RPS. “Calgren opted to go with RPS because of my technology know-how and understanding,” Bobbili says. Moving forward, RPS is pushing two technology pathways: a biodiesel technology called Hybrid.T (Hybrid Traditional) combining supercritical and conventional processing; and an alternative approach to renewable diesel production.

Feedstock with free fatty acids (FFA) requires pretreatment such as esterification, involving high solvent and acid usage. “Acid esterification hinders transesterification, deteriorates process equipment and final fuel quality,” Bobbili says. “When I developed the supercritical process at Jatrodiesel, it was a promising technology to handle high-FFA feedstocks, but it comes with a cost. So I developed an alternative technology that uses parts of supercritical and traditional processing techniques.” 

Hybrid.T strips FFA from feedstock and processes them through a small supercritical reactor. “The advantage is lower pressure and temperatures compared to our regular supercritical process,” Bobbili says. The FFA-stripped feedstock is transesterified through conventional processing. FFA conversion to biodiesel through the parallel supercritical step is 98 percent. This stream is introduced into the transesterification reactor, where the remaining 2 percent FFA is converted to soaps.

Bobbili says advantages of Hybrid.T are low processing costs; fractional methanol usage compared to esterification; low sodium methylate usage for transesterification; high yields compared to traditional production; no salt deposits, corrosion or high maintenance common with sulfuric acid usage; and low capital costs with short deployment time.

The supercritical reaction is driven by temperature, pressure and FFA concentration. “The higher the fatty acid concentration, the lower the pressure and temperature requirement,” Bobbili says. “The fatty acids act as a catalyst under supercritical conditions and drive the reaction forward.” RPS is focused on co-locating 3 to 5 MMgy Hybrid.T plants at ethanol refineries with a return on investment of three to five years. The Calgren project is expected to come online by end of year.

RPS is also working with petroleum companies to develop alternative approaches to renewable diesel processing. “The entire renewable diesel industry is using triglycerides,” Bobbili says. “We’re doing it differently, and it eliminates catalyst degradation and high hydrogen usage because glycerin has to become a gas, which is a loss. We developed a pretreatment process with two products coming out. One goes to hydrogenation, with the other a high-value byproduct.” Bobbili says RPS is developing a new project in California that will be online in 2019.

All-Line Equipment
In March 2001, after nearly 20 years working in the petroleum business, Steve Disselhorst founded All-Line Equipment Co. Soon after, Steve’s brother Scott joined the company, bringing his military discipline and computer savviness to the table.

When ultra-low sulfur diesel was mandated, additives became essential to improve lubricity, keep injectors clean and provide better fuel economy. “All these additive companies needed to sell product without over-additizing and wasting money,” Steve says. “Tracking this became a new problem. Big terminals had super-complicated systems, but at the smaller retail level there weren’t many options. We developed our system to fill a void.” This naturally evolved into biodiesel blending. “With the tax credit, biodiesel blending became pretty lucrative and people wanted solutions,” Steve says.

A South Carolina client wanted to blend biodiesel at different dispensers at two rates, just like additives but at larger ratios. “We scaled up the pump and meters for the right range of flow and pressure,” Scott says. The Bio Blender was born.

“No one manufactures high-capacity blending dispensers like those truck stops use,” Steve says. “They want a high flow rate. To achieve that, you need larger inlet valves, meters, and there’s no room in the dispenser to house this additional equipment.” All-Line Equipment’s Bio Blender is designed for high flow.

The Bio Blender is positioned between the fuel storage tanks and dispensers. “Our proprietary controller runs the variable speed bio pump,” Scott says. “We can run the motor barely turning, full throttle, and anywhere in between depending on the flow rate of the diesel fuel.” Diesel passes from the tank to the island through a meter on the platform, and as soon as it’s flowing, the system registers how much and how fast. “Based on that, our bio pump runs to add bio to the diesel stream at the right ratio,” Scott says.

Controls constantly monitor the two streams and react quickly and accurately, Steve says. “That’s the challenge—getting the algorithm right,” he says. “We’ve done a good job fine-tuning that. It keeps human error out of the equation.”

The retailer can change the blend ratio to maximize profit or meet changing customer demands vs. being locked into a preblended inventory from the terminal. This system does not require delivery drivers to interact with it at all. The system also allows more in-tank diesel storage and avoids product separation.

The Disselhorsts say the Bio Blender is the most accurate, hands-free, real-time blending system available. “When we sell a system, we come on-site and do a startup to ensure quality control and proper installation,” Scott says. “We offer remote monitoring if the customer is interested.” When asked how many hours the system can run before a failure, Steve says, “I’ll let you know once we have a failure.”

Biodiesel producers continue to rely more on waste-based feedstock, but the nature of these degraded materials means varying degrees of impurities and significant problems in phase separation, resulting in emulsions and yield losses.

After pioneering advancements in the waste-to-biodiesel industry for more than two decades, BDI-BioEnergy  International has developed a novel method to characterize feedstock behavior. With grant funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, BDI’s biofuels research and development expert Robert Raudner set out to develop a simple but effective phase separation test for biodiesel feedstock. The starting point was the existing ISO 6614 method for petroleum products, but the mixing in this method is too intense, inhibiting phase separation.

The procedure is simple, Raudner explains. Separately preheat water and feedstock samples to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Fill 40 milliliters (ml) of feedstock into a 100 ml graduated cylinder. Add heated water until the 80 ml mark is reached. Seal the cylinder with a stopper. Mix gently by turning upside down five times in 10 seconds, then place the cylinder in a heated location to ensure the temperature will not drop significantly below 185 F. Wait five minutes for phase separation and then read the results. Raudner notes that as mixing of the phases is key, the test should always be performed by the same person.

Since oil is lighter than water, a clean, pure feedstock will ideally show 40 ml of oil on top, a sharp interface, and 40 ml of water on bottom. If, for example, the reading shows 20 ml of oil on top, 60 ml of emulsion in the middle, and no water phase, this means a lot of water and oil is held in emulsion and pretreatment of feedstock is necessary. If, however, 30 ml of oil, followed by 20 ml of emulsion and 30 ml of water is read, blending with clean feedstock could improve phase separation, and if not, pretreatment is another option.

The characteristics of the layers and interface should be described using a standardized repertoire of qualities, Raudner says. Layers, for example, can be described as clear, with bubbles, cloudy or hazy, while interfaces can be described as sharp, bubbly or lacey.

Raudner points out that most biodiesel plants run the same chemical process but on different equipment, resulting in their tolerance against separation problems to be varying. Therefore, when introducing this method, the quantitative results gained need to be interpreted with the performance of the plant first. By doing so, clear limits can be defined in order to say what feedstock is acceptable. 

Identifying feedstock with poor separation from this method may lead to rejecting a batch on delivery, mixing good and bad feedstock, or implementing pretreatment. Once pretreated, the feedstock can be tested again to check the efficacy of the pretreatment process.

Saola Energy
The team at Saola Energy likes doing new things. “We love problem-solving,” says Adam Belyamani, Saola Energy’s chief operating officer. “We enjoy fixing difficult issues.” Dean Camper, the firm’s chief technology officer, says, “While we excel at providing engineering services to clients, our primary focus is offering novel technologies.” Although the company is relatively young, Belyamani and Camper say it’s made a big impact in the two years it’s been around.

Saola Energy is an up-and-coming technology company in the renewable fuels space with its roots in WB Services, whose technologies were avant-garde and bolstered by Camper’s extensive hydrotreating experience in the oil industry and Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Saola Energy has an exclusive agreement to provide engineering for integrated biodiesel plants co-located at ethanol refineries, which is a patented process now owned by Rayeman Elements. “We picked up projects that were ongoing at WB and we came in to help finish them,” Belyamani says. Included in this was East Kansas Agri-Energy’s nameplate 3 MMgy renewable diesel plant, which is now running above nameplate capacity. “Once we get started on a project with a client, and they become familiar with our capabilities and see the results,” Belyamani says, “they tend to give us additional work.” 

Saola Energy’s services range from plant evaluations, debottlenecking and mass-balance studies, to engineering, project management and complete general contracting services, as well as plant operations. “We provide support until the project is completed and beyond,” Belyamani says.

For projects co-located at ethanol refineries, Saola Energy is engaged on two fronts: enzymatic biodiesel processing and renewable diesel production. “We can do traditional chemical biodiesel, but for smaller-sized plants we think enzymatic makes more sense,” Camper says. Saola Energy personnel is very familiar with the commercially available Novozymes enzyme used at the 2 MMgy enzymatic biodiesel plant co-located at Adkins Energy’s 50 MMgy ethanol refinery in Lena, Illinois, built by WB Services four years ago. This was hailed as the nation’s first biodiesel production facility co-located at an ethanol plant. “The feedstock-flexibility enzymatic biodiesel brings to the table, particularly as margins on soy tend to get tighter—especially without the tax credit—is critical,” Belyamani says. Saola Energy is also in discussions with standalone biodiesel plants to retrofit chemical processes to enzymatic.

The company has filed for a utility patent on renewable diesel technology for its intellectual property implemented at the EKAE plant. Until the patent is published, it prefers to keep this information close to the vest. “We’ve done lot of work with EKAE, getting the plant up and running—they’ve been patient and graceful,” Camper says. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons in the past two years. This was a first-of-its-kind renewable diesel facility co-located with an ethanol plant, and we continue to develop strategic partnerships. We are gearing up to build more of these and are in advanced discussions.”

With 18,300 employees and more than 4.5 billion euros in annual revenue, Imerys is a French multinational company specializing in the production and processing of industrial and advanced minerals. Nearly  a year ago, Imerys hired Chris Abrams, a renowned expert in chemical adsorbents for biodiesel applications. Abrams has spent 25 years working in chemical adsorbents, with 19 of those focused on biodiesel applications.

Abrams recalls how the dry-washing term for biodiesel first came about. “Decades ago the term was used by small home brewers of biodiesel before any commercial-scale plants were in existence,” Abrams says. “Those home brewers first used the ‘dry washing’ term as a descriptor for washing their biodiesel without water.” Twenty years later, the sophistication of the biodiesel industry has greatly increased and use of chemical adsorbents is a commonplace and valuable component of processing—whether in feedstock purification, washing, or as a final fuel polish.

Imerys’ Filtration Division is headquartered in San Jose, California. The company’s CynerSorb line is innovative and effective, Abrams says. “We use a diatomaceous earth mined in California with an extremely high surface area that is chemically enhanced with a proprietary adsorbent,” he says. “We see biodiesel producers using other adsorbents in concert with diatomaceous earth, but when using multiple products like this, it may cause too much pressure in filtration and slow down production. So the general idea was to combine two concepts—diatomaceous earth and an adsorbent—to provide great filtration characteristics while trying to fix a problem that plagues the industry.” Diatomaceous earth is used to remove solids, but it’s not activated. When combined with Imerys’ proprietary adsorbent, the two-in-one product can remove a host of impurities that either product alone would leave behind. CynerSorb is a surface-functionalized diatomaceous earth.

“Using CynerSorb reduces the overall adsorbent amount and weight used, thereby reducing yield loss in the filter cake,” Abrams says. “Also, by reducing the total amount of powder added to the system, the longer the filters are up and running. So it improves production rates and decreases yield losses.”

Imerys offers five grades of CynerSorb product with varying filtration characteristics, depending on the customers’ needs. “This is the widest selection for the end user, and they’re used in all points of the biodiesel process,” Abrams says. “In feedstock pretreatment, CynerSorb removes metals and can degum too, which can be done with or without adding acid.” He says the best application for CynerSorb is on the front end, addressing impurities early on so producers don’t have to deal with them later. “It’s not that there is no need for adsorbents at the back end,” he says, “but taking care of the bad things on the front end helps improve conversion and separation  down the line.”

CynerSorb is also used to replace water-washing after transesterification for removal of soaps, residual gycerin and metals, but to a lesser extent. “The way the industry is now, a majority of producers are water-washing or distilling, so our product would mainly be used on the back end as a final polish,” Abrams says. “But some use it quite effectively for washing.” On the tail end, it is a cold filtration solution too. “Using CynerSorb in the cold filtration process gives better results for cold-flow characteristics of the final fuel,” he says. 

Where CynerSorb really shines, Abrams says, is in its ability to offer feedstock flexibility to biodiesel producers when used  in feedstock purification. “As markets get tighter and producers turn to different types of feedstock, we’ve come up with the tools that allow them to be more feedstock-flexible,” he says. “Lower-quality feed means better economics but greater difficulty in processing. Imerys has invested in R&D and analytics to give producers the tool set needed to be flexible and capitalize on those better economics.

CynerSorb works in a broad range of temperatures and feedstocks. The oil is heated, mixed with CynerSorb for 10 to 30 minutes, or for continuous flow based on the volumetric oil rate, then filtered out. “The reason it works so well is the activated sites throughout the product,” he says. “There is extremely high surface areas internally and externally, so it’s a tortuous filtration path for liquids around and through the surface-functionalized diatomaceous earth. It removes impurities chemically and physically.” Phosphorous and the resulting soaps formed during neutralization of free fatty acids are two of the main impurities targeted and removed on the front end, along with a broad range of metals and salts. For a final fuel polish, glycerin, soaps and any remaining metals are removed.

Abrams says Imerys is a one-stop shop for filtration needs and has the broadest range of solutions. “We have the right products with multiple ranges of permeability and the expertise to help with a wide variety of applications,” he says. “If you’re trying to change feedstock or equipment in your plant, we have the knowledge to help you. We can also create one-off solutions for very specific processes. And we can help you become more feedstock-flexible.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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