Thinking Small, Globally

Vallejo, Calif.-based Greenline Industries may offer small- and medium-scale biodiesel processors, but its long-term global mission is anything but undersized. With an efficient continuous-flow process that uses relatively little water, this company is ready to bring renewable power to the people.
By Tom Bryan | November 01, 2005
In an industry where agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill are setting out to build biodiesel plants as large as 50 MMgy, Greenline Industries' mission to become the world's leading manufacturer of small- to medium-scale biodiesel processors-that, and its support of decentralized global production-might lack universal appeal. But to Jacques Sinoncelli, the northern California-based company's cerebral cofounder and president, being popular with the "big guys" isn't all that important.

Sinoncelli isn't a maverick necessarily, he just thinks biodiesel holds a greater, more consequential promise than personal fortune. For him, biodiesel is the real deal-an earth-friendly fuel that can be produced from locally available renewable feedstocks, offering a sustainable source of energy to communities around the globe. "The world has largely gone to a model of centralization, but we feel that decentralization is the way to go," Sinoncelli said. "That's one of the promises of biodiesel to be able to shift to a decentralized model. For
example, we could help developing countries become more self-sufficient by just collocating large [biodiesel-powered] generators or water desalinization plants next to biodiesel processors."

This type of industrious idealism drives Greeenline, an offshoot of Bio-Energy Systems LLC, the biodiesel production company Sinoncelli and longtime friend and Greenline cofounder Michael Brown launched in 2002. Under the Bio-Energy Systems name, Sinoncelli and Brown built their first biodiesel plant in Vallejo, Calif. The facility, which was being upgraded and relocated at press time, had an initial capacity of 600 gallons per day but was ratcheted up through a series of expansions to 2.5 MMgy. "It's been a true R&D facility-and it shows it," said Gary Marsh, Greenline's business-savvy vice president of sales. "We're now upgrading the plant to four times its [current] capacity. In order to do that, we're moving to a new, larger location."

Greenline was spun off of Bio-Energy Systems in late 2004 to develop, fabricate and produce biodiesel processing units. The young company got its feet wet providing the process technology and equipment for Seattle Biodiesel LLC, a 2 MMgy facility located in the city of its namesake, and Southern BioDiesel LLC, a 2.5 MMgy plant in Jackson, Miss. Now, Greenline is in the process of building another 2.5 MMgy plant for San Francisco-based fuel distributor Golden Gate Petroleum. The project is organized under the name Bay Biodiesel, an entity that's also considering a second plant near Reno, Nev., Marsh said.

Greenline is also under contract to build small-scale "containerized" plants for an undisclosed client that has partnered with Greenline to market the technology. And that's just one angle the company is working. According to Marsh, serious inquiries are coming in from all over the world. "I'm expecting to close in the neighborhood of three to five deals in the next 20 to 30 days," he said, providing few hints about the agreements other than to say at least three of them are based in the United States, each in a different part of the country.

The Greenline way

According to Sinoncelli, Greenline's technology, embodied in its MK-series processing units, is fundamentally attractive in two ways: First, it's continuous flow, a rarity for small-scale plants. Second, it excludes the expensive and environmentally dubious process of water-washing methyl esters. Additionally, the MK-series units have relatively small footprints and low costs of initial purchase. In fact, a 1 MMgy processing unit (not including storage tanks and other plant necessities) can be had for as little as $150,000, Marsh said.

By removing all water content in the first stage of processing, and never reintroducing water in subsequent stages to remove leftover catalyst, soap and glycerin that might remain in the methyl esters, Greenline's process works without excessive water and energy consumption. It also allows a producer to avoid the financial burden of water-regenerating hardware. Instead, Greenline uses ion exchange resin to neutralize those undesirable trace elements and effectively clean up the end product.

Greenline's continuous flow process is a big draw for some would-be small producers. "Our plants have start and stop times under one hour," Sinoncelli said. "For small plants, batch processes have been the mainstay only because they offer quick start and stop times. That's [historically] been the opposite for continuous flow facilities. But with our design, an operator can shut down the plant in under an hour. It brings the efficiency of continuous flow processing to small production."

Consistent with the idea of decentralization, Greenline's plants are multi-feedstock capable, which gives producers more flexibility when it comes to the availability and price of raw materials. "I think it's important to be able to accommodate different models of production," Sinoncelli said. "For example, it would be nice for a small community to recycle its yellow grease from local restaurants, process that grease and feed it back as fuel in county vehicles. In that sense, biodiesel production could support the self-sufficiency of a small town."

Greenline is focused on small- and medium-scale production, of course, but the company's 1MMgy to 10MMgy plants are expandable. "We think it is important to be able to easily expand with minimal reconfiguration," Sinoncelli said. "That's the nice thing about continuous flow processes. You have much better ability to scale plants up or down. For example, someone might want to get their feet wet by starting with a 7 [MMgy] plant. At the same time, they might eventually want to go to a 12 [MMgy] or 14 [MMgy] plant. Knowing that, you can pre-equip the plant-even though it may be running at a smaller capacity-to be able to handle higher outputs with minor modifications down the road."
And although Greenline currently offers nothing larger than a 10 MMgy facility, Sinoncelli acknowledged that the definition of small- and medium-scale production might change as the industry expands and matures. "We could evolve the process," he said. "Maybe small- to medium-scale plants will be defined in a couple of years as 1 [MMgy] to 20 [MMgy] facilities. That would certainly be within what we would like to do."

It should be mentioned that Greenline bases the production capacity of its processing units on a 24-7, 350-days-per-year production model. However, Sinoncelli pointed out that many small-scale operations run on standard working-hour schedules (e.g., eight hours a day, five days a week), and are shut down daily. "That was one of the reasons we felt it was imperative to have a very easy start and stop methodology," Sinoncelli said.

Greenline can deliver a biodiesel plant, whether it's containerized or site assembled, in less than three months. "As we're building more and more processors, we are establishing agreements with some of our key vendors, and they're starting to stock the parts that are made especially for us," Sinoncelli said. "So now we can comfortably put out a processor in under 90 days-for any size plant up to 10 [MMgy]." The assembly is done primarily at the company's Vallejo headquarters, with some of the work subcontracted to vendors. Sinoncelli said Greenline also offers turnkey design/build services and can handle the installation of loading and offloading racks, tank farms and other auxiliary plant requirements.

Global, decentralized production
Greenline's global strategy is centered on building affordable skid-mounted processing units that can be shipped anywhere in the world in 8-foot-by-20-foot containers. "This type of processing unit opens up the possibility of biodiesel to the entire world, quite literally," Marsh said. "That's one of the things that Greenline is really committed to-and something that got me interested in what Jacques and Michael were doing. Essentially, what we are looking at is a situation where you don't really have to bring the feedstock to the processor, you can actually bring the processor to the feedstock. And you can deliver it as close as possible to the people that are going to be using it."

And decentralized production isn't just a model that works in developing countries. Marsh said it has great appeal right here in the United States. "We have talked to small- and medium-sized trucking firms that could put a biodiesel plant right in their backyards and, at the very least, produce their own biodiesel," he said. "We've also talked to folks that are located in logging areas, who could produce and cross-market biodiesel to other industries. We're talking to small agricultural co-ops that could operate their machinery on biodiesel they would produce themselves."

While the world's largest plants might enjoy beneficial economies of scale, the efficiency of small- and medium-scale production is perhaps underestimated. Sinoncelli said that by taking a broad view of the efficiency of biodiesel production, small-scale plants start to make a lot of sense. "A local farm co-op could have a biodiesel plant on site and use the resulting fuel for its tractors and machinery, which could very easily be a million gallons per year or more, even for a small co-op," Sinoncelli said. "Look at that model and calculate all the [energy] that would otherwise be needed to transport [conventional] diesel fuel to the site. Compare it to a large, centralized plant-the shuttling back and forth from distribution and production centers, the transporting of raw materials and, of course, the finished product going back the other way-and I think you're probably talking about more efficiency, not less."

Sinoncelli isn't opposed to large-scale production, but he feels strongly that centralized production simply does not reflect the true promise of biodiesel. He hopes the growing international industry is big enough for both models. "Fortunately, we are at a stage where we can create the type of industry we want," he said. "I feel that by providing a way for local communities to be able to provide their own energy, not only will they be self sufficient and less dependent on the rest of the world's resources, but I think it will have a domino effect and, who knows, maybe even help unshackle some nations from undesirable economic bonds."

Tom Bryan is editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach him by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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