NBB, Spitfire green National Biodiesel Conference

By | April 01, 2006
Just weeks after announcing plans to increase production capacity of its existing facility and expand operations to the East Coast, the American Biofuels biodiesel plant in Bakersfield, Calif., was destroyed by a fire caused by a methanol spill Feb. 17.

"The fire did not happen in the plant," said Joe LaStella, president of Green Star Products, a majority stakeholder in American Biofuels. "It had nothing to do with the plant whatsoever. We're very safe at this plant. We have methanol detectors that are state-of-the-art and can detect even a quarter of a percent of methanol in the air. This happened outside of the plant."

Reports on the fire from a variety of sources have blamed static electricity as the cause of the blaze. However, LaStella did not agree with this assessment. He said a methanol-transporting tote, weighing nearly a ton, slipped from its carrier leading to the outbreak of the fire. "[A tote] has aluminum bars on it, and one of these dragging along, hitting the concrete with 2,000 pounds it could have easily caused a spark and ignited less than a gallon that had spilled and created a fireball that went back to the tote and set 250 gallons on fire," LaStella said. "This happened outside the plant and then spread into the plant."

Methanol is a volatile chemical used in the biodiesel refining process, which transforms fats or oils into the fuel and liberates triglycerides as a marketable coproduct.
Although the entire plant was destroyed as a result of the fire, five biodiesel tanks (approximately 30,000 gallons) and 6,000 gallons of methanol were saved. Also, nearly 90,000 gallons of corn oil were saved with only some minor damage to the exterior of the railcar where it was stored. The Bakersfield plant, in full operation at the time of the fire, was negotiating several marketing opportunities expected later this year.

American Biofuels will rebuild the Bakersfield plant and continue with its plans to construct a new facility on the East Coast. "We're going to rebuild-East Coast, West Coast," said LaStella, who was preparing to survey sites in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Since American Biofuels handles all of its operations from process technology, facility design and construction to site management, LaStella said the company can recuperate quickly from its losses. "The whole world knows that it takes 12 to 16 months to build a biodiesel plant, but if we can get this thing back on line in about 18 weeks, we can show that our technology can build a plant in record time," LaStella said. "In 18 weeks, we'll be back in production, and I think the world is going to take notice of that one."
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