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Food Waste to Fuel Tanks

North American BioFuels sees brown grease through green-tinted glasses. The company recently expanded its biodiesel pilot plant on Long Island. Now, its sights are set on cornering the brown and black grease markets on the populous East Coast.
By Ron Kotrba | November 10, 2006
Long Island, N.Y., not far from the City that Never Sleeps, is the perfect location for a man who says he barely rests two hours a night, earned his first master's degree at age 17 and developed a system to turn an urban environmental problem into a green solution. This prodigy is David Butler, an entrepreneur, pragmatist and self-proclaimed problem-solver. Butler is also CEO of North American BioFuels Co. (NABFC), which he founded in 2005 after developing his own process of taking in brown grease-a waste stream no one seemed to want until recently-and putting out ASTM-spec biodiesel.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for NABFC's expanded pilot plant-now at 1 MMgy-took place in late August at the Russell Reid wastewater management facility in Bohemia, N.Y. Now, the motivated company, with what seems to be an equally ambitious leader, seeks to take this model and build on it-literally. The pilot-scale biodiesel system is portable, self-contained and ready to interlink with identical systems for scaling up, sizing down or completely removing the plant altogether.

At press time in mid-October, NABFC eagerly awaited the results of a bid process to locate its first commercial-scale production outfit at a major treatment facility in southern New Jersey. "We have great expectations that we'll be chosen," says Alan Ellenbogen, executive vice president of NABFC. He says he believes this hopeful site is the fourth- or fifth-largest sewage treatment plant in New Jersey, a state that's home to more than 8 million people. The future story of NABFC will be one to follow, and the tale of its inception is no less.

One Man's Waste
Butler tells Biodiesel Magazine he's "been in the entrepreneurial sector" since he was a teenager. Through private and military contract work, he's been a sort of professional troubleshooter most of his working life. "I'm a problem solver," he says with clear self-assurance.

Two-and-a-half years ago, he started looking into viable alternative energy systems-solar, wind and biomass. "Biomass seemed the most reliable," he says. Technically, he's right. The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, but experts say biomass, in all of nature's forms, is rarely in short supply. Moreover, a population of "on-the-go" Americans bent on greasy spoons and fast-food binging is bound to produce an overabundance of waste greases in need of a depository, oftentimes at a cost. Once Butler began contemplating various feedstocks for biodiesel production-and given his proximity to one of the most densely-populated areas in the United States-using the large, burdensome stocks of readily available brown and black greases seemed to be a wise choice. "We started an R&D program to look at the chemical and technical aspects," Butler says. "We spent two years developing our process."

Restaurants, diners, fast food joints-they all produce and attempt to trap their brown-grease waste stream, which can come from burgers, etc., but isn't to be confused with French fry grease. Trap grease pumped from food service establishments is hauled off by companies like Russell Reid for a fee, after which it gets dewatered and disposed of by incineration mostly. "There's been a struggle to get rid of grease trap waste since the beginning of time," says Gary Weiner, president of Russell Reid, a waste disposal company serving New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Unfortunately, grease trap service intervals aren't always scheduled when they're needed, and some of that grease escapes into the sewer system where it collects, causing backups and overflows. This is referred to as black grease. "Black grease is the least desirable," Weiner says. "It collects at the heads of treatment plants ... " and is normally removed from the 24-inch pipes with a combo sewer Jet-Vac.

Weiner tells Biodiesel Magazine how he first heard about Butler, NABFC and the biofuel company's progressive plans. "Representatives from NABFC approached our people on Long Island," he says. "In doing their research on brown grease treatment, [Butler and associates] wanted to know who the players were and how its treatment was handled on the Island of Long."

That's how NABFC identified Russell Reid. "As a company, we are about responsible wastewater management," Weiner says. "We're clean through and through. We're as progressive as the next guy, and we're very interested in alternative fuels. I found out a long time ago that brown grease contained 12,000 Btus per pound. Then, the opportunity arose for this aggressive approach." Russell Reid holds 1,800 active food service accounts, a fact that helped seal the deal for Butler and NABFC.

A Self-Powered 'Roach Motel'
Moving from R&D to production, Ellenbogen says NABFC has generated a "better box" to convert these predictably unpredictable feedstocks to biodiesel. These waste-grease feedstocks have free fatty acid (FFA) contents all over the board, oftentimes in excess of 50 percent. "The pilot plant operating now uses brown grease," he says. If this New Jersey facility col-location bid is accepted, however, NABFC will use black and brown greases there.

Ellenbogen says NABFC's proprietary conversion unit is an entirely automated, continuous batch system. "We take a roach-motel approach," Butler adds, indicating that the grease goes in and it's not seen again until exiting as biodiesel and its by-products.

Russell Reid trucks haul the grease on-site, where it then goes into the fractionation tank where solids are removed, followed by a centrifugal decanting process to dewater the greasy solution. NABFC randomly tests its incoming feedstocks to check for contaminants that shouldn't be in the grease, like used motor oil for instance. He says the fractionated, dewatered grease then goes to a custom acid stripping process. NABFC wouldn't detail the specifics of the process, other than saying it consists of two conversion phases. "We implement a non-sodium based system," Butler says. "Without sodium, the wastewater is cleaner. We also use low temperatures-around 120 degrees [Fahrenheit]-and low atmospheric pressures." Butler also says the proprietary reaction system is made of high-density polyurethane rather than steel.

With potassium sulfate (K2SO4) as by-product, it would appear that NABFC's two-phase process involves sulfuric-acid-catalyzed esterification, followed by potassium hydroxide base transesterification. The sulfuric acid of step one reacts with the potassium base of step two to produce K2SO4. NABFC has five patents approved or still pending, Ellenbogen says, all of which are related to the physical design and chemical processing of the precarious feedstocks.

Ellenbogen says NABFC is "paranoid" about quality and routinely contracts an inspectorate lab to test its fuel; considering the feedstock it's using and the industry's charge to step up quality control, it's no wonder. Although Butler says his company's pilot plant in Bohemia produces on-spec biodiesel now, this wasn't always the case. "Initially, there were problems with total glycerin, but we dropped that by doing a combination of [adjustments]," he says. NABFC also has a lab on-site in Bohemia, where testing incoming and outbound products is performed routinely.

A small portion of the biodiesel produced in NABFC's system is used to power the generation of its own combined heat and power system. The pilot uses a 273-kilowatt Detroit Diesel generator and 30-kilowatt micro-turbines at 408 volts, which produce 159,000 Btus of usable heat, Butler tells Biodiesel Magazine. Butler says the Detroit Diesel generator consumes about 3.3 gallons of biodiesel per hour of operation. The pilot plant's max production capacity is 6,250 gallons per day but is only producing roughly half of that amount now.

Build-Out Ready
NABFC isn't interested in becoming a technology provider to the industry. It wants to be a major biodiesel producer. Future site agreements-as the one in New Jersey for which the company awaits the go-ahead-will open doors for further production capacity. NABFC's portable units are helping to realize this ambition. One of the stipulations to locating at the site of a wastewater treatment facility is that the system used to produce biodiesel is able to be moved off-site quickly, Ellenbogen says. The systems are pre-built in a controlled environment off-site where all the necessary components are fit inside sea-land cargo containers. Once NABFC brings a unit to its destination all that remains is linking up connections. From there, only a button needs to be pushed for complete automation. If the Jersey site comes through, Butler says NABFC will be producing 10 MMgy there-10 sea-land containers-for around $3.5 million in build costs.

"You hear about these plants coming on line with 40 MMgy capacities," Ellenbogen says. "We would like to build four or five smaller [10 MMgy] plants in the Northeast, for example." Ellenbogen says Long Island Biofuel currently markets NABFC's biodiesel and coproducts, and that New England demand for home heating oil is a significant market. "They have extensively tested our biodiesel and other products in commercial on-road, home heating and additionally in the construction industry's applications with our glycerin," he tells Biodiesel Magazine. "They are very professional and knowledgeable folks, who market our biodiesel on Long Island. We also sell the water released during our process, which in our case is not salt water but [potassium sulfate] water used by sod farms on Long Island as fertilizer."

Weiner says although Russell Reid doesn't have a direct investment in the waste-to-biodiesel conversion technology, his company finds value in its relationship with NABFC. "Our partnership is one of serious interest ultimately to see to what extent there will be more 'fruit' down the line," Weiner says. "They are an aggressive partner, the pilot's running with success I don't see any reason why the relationship can't progress, especially because biodiesel seems to be in such short supply. The waste business struggled for years over how to dispose of this organic material, and it's promising to see this industrial and environmental change with what used to be considered a nuisance. The tide is definitely turning."

Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at rkotrba@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 746-8385.
 

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