A second life for idled industrial facilities

By | July 13, 2010
At the Advanced Biofuels Workshop June 14 in St. Louis, a panel discussion took place pertinent to the many biodiesel facilities in the U.S. that are idled or distressed due 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 of hydroprocessed renewable diesel a day. 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, which 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.
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