UK biodiesel producer looking to expand capacity

By Luke Geiver | September 19, 2011

When the founders of Organic Drive, a U.K.-based biodiesel producer, decided to leave their industrial and operational consulting positions, the team wanted to find an industry that was growing. They chose the biodiesel industry, according to Tom James, director at Organic Drive, because they felt the use of waste vegetable oil as a biodiesel feedstock was growing, and also because the team felt its expertise at improving process efficiency could be put to good use. James told Biodiesel Magazine that the three founders, who include Geoff Cunningham and Duncan Morrison, formerly worked on everything from nuclear reactors to submarines. “Having each managed several successful projects,” James said, “we soon realized that we should be adding the kind of value we were delivering every day to our clients within our own business.” So, James said, “we decided to make the bold call of leaving our well-respected and well-paid consulting jobs, and step out on our own.”

Today, the team is running a 25 metric ton (around 7,500 gallons) per week facility, which James said will be scaled up to between 40 and 60 tons per week in the next few months. “We aim to build a second, larger plant within the next year,” he said. The plant design, construction and even commissioning were all done by the three-member team. They rely on used cooking oil and in the process James said after drying and pre-processing of the feedstock, the plant runs its own version of an acid-base process. “In order to be able to obtain the largest capacity for our invested capital,” he explained, “we reengineered an ex-brewing vessel as our main reactor.” The glycerol made during production is sold to an anaerobic digestion plant as a high-yield feedstock, he added.

Purification of the crude biodiesel starts with the use of a vacuum flash designed and built by the team, a method that takes the methanol below 0.2 m/m. The biodiesel then passes through an adsorption media (also designed by the team) before finally going through a commercially available exchange resin. James said after passing through another sub-1 micron filter, the product will exceed EN 14214. “Our purification process is unique,” he noted.

When the team first decided to enter the biodiesel industry, James said they took many trips (undercover as both buyers and producers). The team was also looking at the feedstock options “that would carry reasonable technical difficulty in producing quality fuel, but also substantial feedstock availability.” According to James, most virgin rapeseed methyl ester production plants, such as the Lurgi plants in Germany, were running with very tight margins and were only profitable with the combination of high yields and vertically integrated glycerin refining. The team now purchases its feedstock from other used cooking oil refiners, and then “aim for a high yield in order to obtain decent margins.” The team, he also said, was advised finding feedstock would be a serious potential pitfall, “but we haven’t found any difficulty purchasing it from a variety of sources on the open market.”

For James and his team, there are three main areas they believe Organic Drive must overcome in the next few years, including product quality issues, process yield and the volume of production. Once the team works out its issues with product quality and product yield, James said “it is simply a matter of producing as much as possible.” Although the team is currently producing for a number of smaller clients, James said, Organic Drive is now looking to supply larger obligated parties, meaning fewer companies but larger loads. “I have already outlined rough figures for our production volume plans, and we are currently barely touching the U.K. used cooking oil supply.” 


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