A second life for idled industrial facilities

By Ron Kotrba | June 15, 2010
Posted June 15, 2010

At the Advanced Biofuels Workshop June 14 in St. Louis, a panel took place that should be of interest to the many idled and distressed biodiesel facilities in the U.S., thanks to the long-lapsed biodiesel tax credit. The panel, titled, Second Life: Upgrading Existing Industrial Facilities for Advanced Biofuels Production, discussed opportunities where misfortunes otherwise abound.

Richard Aves, CEO of Cetane Energy LLC, presented on retrofitting biodiesel plants to produce between 200 to 2,000 barrels (8,400 to 84,000 gallons) per day of renewable diesel by way of hydroprocessing. He said Cetane Energy got U.S. EPA certification of its fuel in April 2009, and the company is currently looking at first-gen feedstocks for its second-gen process.

Its first demo plant was built at the company headquarters in Carlsbad, N.M., and can produce 200 barrels a day of hydroprocessed renewable diesel. Cetane Energy dubs the plant the first U.S. facility to produce hydroprocessed renewable diesel in a stand-alone facility.

Thus far, the company has five refineries planned, Aves said, and they are being engineered to produce between 500 and 2,000 barrels a day. Cetane Energy's first preference is to use idled/shutdown refineries. The locations of these projects are St. Gabriel, La.; Winnie, Texas; Lexington, Ky.; Las Vegas, Nev.; and Mobile, Ala. The Louisiana plant is in the engineering phase now, and construction is expected to begin later this year, Aves said. It is being designed to process 1,600 barrels per day. Cetane Energy also has license agreements with Rational Energies and Rio Grande Valley Biofuels.

"We're not waiting for commercialization," Aves said. "It's here."

Add-ons and retrofits to process and upgrade high-acidity feedstocks was the topic of Roman Wolff's discussion. Wolff is president of Houston-based Enhanced Biofuels LLC. He said his company's trademarked HS Reactor System is designed to process feedstocks with up to 100 percent free fatty acids (FFA) and/or carboxylic acids.

"Carboxylic acids found in pyrolysis oil are very corrosive and can leach into water," Wolff said.

Wolff discussed drawbacks of existing technologies to treat undesirable feedstocks, saying that ion exchange requires higher capital costs when dealing with feedstocks that have FFA content higher than 10 percent; acid esterification involves expensive metallurgy, large equipment, and high capital expenses, and is usually designed for batch processing; and with hydrogenation, Wolff said the corrosive, high-FFA feedstocks can degrade the catalyst and-contrary to Aves' talk-can only work on a grand scale. "I'll have to talk with Richard afterwards," Wolff said, looking over to Aves with a smile.

Unlike other advanced biofuel technologies, Enhanced Biofuels' HS Reactor System produces methyl esters. Wolff said next-generation technology providers rarely look at improving current processes, what his company does. The system employs a combination of reactor geometry, catalysts, temperature and pressure to allow utilization of undesirable and corrosive feedstocks. Enhanced Biofuels has two pilot units in operation today, one scaled at 3,000 gallons per year and the other much larger unit capable of producing 250,000 gallons per year.

"Advanced biofuel technology is here today," Wolff concluded.

When asked what aspects can make or break a retrofit project at a biodiesel refinery, Aves pointed out the situation with Healey Biodiesel, a small biodiesel plant in Sedgwick, Kan., which planned to trade in transesterification for Cetane Energy's hydroprocessing technology. The lack of available hydrogen, obviously necessary for hydroprocessing, killed that particular plant retrofit project, Aves said. Even so, he said his company and Healey Biodiesel have plans for future work together at locations where hydrogen supply is accessible, perhaps in the Gulf Coast region where the oil refineries are concentrated.

Eric Connor with ThermoChem Recovery International talked about the integrated thermochemical biorefinery concept, incorporating gasification of biomass at distressed pulp and paper mills to make syngas, which is then cleaned and fed into a Fischer Tropsch reformer to produce diesel fractions and paraffin waxes, and/or used in a combined cycle energy plant.

Since the thermochemical platform is exothermic, it integrates with an endothermic host process to create superior economics. He said the thermal efficiency of TRI's process is 72 to 81 percent. Depending on what markets the host company would like to take advantage of, the FT process can be tailored to produce a range of chain lengths from the lightest C1 to C4 (tail gas) to C20-plus chain lengths (paraffin waxes), Connor said.

TRI has an $8 million pilot plant at Southern Research Institute in Durham, N.C., which can process four dry tons per day using a positive displacement piston system that eliminates hydrogen blowback, and a fluidized bed boiler heating the solid biomass up to 1,450 degrees Fahrenheit, which operates at 65 psi on the bottom and 35 psi on the top. Eighty-five percent of the char is converted to syngas on that vessel, he said. It also utilizes a carbon trim cell, which is what allows TRI to manipulate the hydrogen to carbon ratio. The pilot also implements a weak caustic scrubbing to remove sulfur and particulates from the gas in the cleanup process, and then feeds the cleaned gas to the fixed bed FT reactor to produce C9 to C19 chain-length diesel molecules.

The company is integrating its process into the Flambeau River Biofuels Project in Wisconsin, which was awarded $30 million from U.S. DOE to demonstrate the biorefinery concept. The capacity will be 1,000 dry tons per day of forest waste biomass, and is expected to produce 9.5 MMgy of FT diesel, 7.6 MMgy of paraffin wax, 5.3 megawatts of green electricity, and steam and hot water for the onsite paper mill that's been around for 100 years. TRI is also working on an integrated biorefinery demo, Project Independence, at NewPage Corp. in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

"You don't need to be large to do FT," Connor said. "I know this because I'm here. We don't want to look like the petroleum industry. Biomass is spread out. We can prove the economics for a distributed system."
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