Drivers Wanted

Last year, a leading U.S. biodiesel supplier rejuvenated one of the largest dedicated biodiesel production facilities in the nation. World Energy, owner of the 18-mmgy Purada Processing facility in Lakeland, Fla., now has another important objective-finding a company willing to take over production.
By Dave Nilles | March 01, 2005
World Energy Alternatives LLC has earned the distinction of being the nation's largest biodiesel supplier by focusing on the development of new biodiesel customers throughout the country. Since 1994, the company has developed the nation's largest multi-plant, multi-region, multi-feedstock supply network.

The Purada Processing facility in Lakeland, Fla., has served as one of the most important components of World Energy's production network since 2000. The company took full ownership of the plant in 2004, keeping the facility in its portfolio to maintain supply stability. Since taking control, World Energy has accelerated production and initiated a capital program to modernize the facility.

The abilities to refine crude glycerin and produce biodiesel from multiple feedstocks are becoming key components for America's new generation of biodiesel plants, according to World Energy President Gene Gebolys. The Purada facility, the only commercial-scale biodiesel plant in Florida, has given World Energy a valuable production asset-not only for biodiesel, but also for refined glycerin.

Managed by World Energy subsidiary Purada Processing LLC, the plant's feedstock adaptability and glycerin handling capability are second to none. In fact, a recent upgrade made the facility the nation's largest multi-feedstock biodiesel plant in the United States. Gebolys believes this important distinction gives his company an edge in an increasingly competitive market. "This plant has been-and is-critical to our success because it is so versatile in terms of feedstock capability and glycerin margin optimization," Gebolys said.

Now, the company is looking to take the next logical step with the facility. "We are at our best when we are building new markets and aggregating new demand in this fast growing and dynamic market," Gebolys said. "If the right situation presents itself, we will move to put the plant in the hands of a strong and stable production oriented company so that we can focus on our core competencies." Instead of directly managing the facility, he intends to focus resources and personnel on what the company does best-moving more biodiesel than any other company in the nation.

Growing the production network
Starting in the mid-1990s, the Lakeland plant's founders raised and spent more than $20 million building the facility. The plant began producing small amounts of product in 1997 for the then-infant biodiesel industry.

In 1998, Gebolys spun the biodiesel division of methyl ester-producer Twin Rivers Technologies into a stand-alone company named World Energy. The new company was based on Gebolys' idea of launching biodiesel not through production, but through the establishment of an aggressive marketing and distribution company (see profile in October/November 2004 issue of Biodiesel Magazine).

A year after forming World Energy, Gebolys took his first look at the Lakeland plant. He recognized the value of producing large-scale amounts of biodiesel from multiple feedstocks. Gebolys was convinced that a multi-feedstock approach could fulfill his company's coverage of different markets, and the respective needs of those markets.

In the summer of 2000, World Energy entered into an off-take agreement with the plant's owners to sell all of the plant's output. Within two years of entering the agreement, the plant became one of the largest biodiesel producers in the United States. By mid-2003, however, the plant was struggling to keep up with the industry's growth.

World Energy took over the facility in early 2004 and initiated a revitalization program. The plant continued to provide the company with biodiesel production and glycerin refining capability, and connected World Energy to the industrial side of the business.

A continuous production process

Purada Processing General Manager Blake Winslow has been with the plant since the late 1990s. While the plant's maximum output is currently 18 mmgy, Winslow said feedstock type and quality influence the plant's production speed and throughput. There is about 100,000 gallons of feedstock oil storage on site, according to Winslow. Much of the feedstock is shipped into the plant via rail.

Once feedstock reaches the facility, Winslow said a staff of four operators per shift is able to keep the plant running smoothly. The plant produces biodiesel in what Winslow calls a "continuous batch sequence." While the biodiesel itself is produced in a batch process, the batches are continuously moved through the production process. For example, when one batch of product leaves the catalyst-mixing stage, another batch falls in behind it.

Another unique feature of the plant is its use of a biodegradable heat transfer fluid, provided by Paratherm Corp. "We choose to use a biodegradable oil because everything in the facility is biodegradable," Winslow said.

Multi-feedstock, prime location and versatile
One of the unique characteristics of the Lakeland plant is also what makes it a leader in the U.S. biodiesel industry. As the nation's largest multi-feedstock biodiesel facility, the plant has handled feedstocks ranging from waste vegetable oil and poultry fat, to corn, canola and soy oils. "It's the only plant of its size focused on taking in any feedstock at the front end and producing high quality methyl esters from them," Gebolys said.

The plant's location in the Southeast puts it in a prime location to receive a variety of those feedstocks. Soybean crushers in Georgia provide soy oil. There are several poultry operations throughout the Southeast. The tourism industry provides a steady supply of yellow grease. The plant is located just one half hour from Tampa and an hour from Orlando-home to Walt Disney World, a steady producer of yellow grease.

The plant's yellow grease capability will become increasingly important, according to Gebolys. He predicts that should the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp.'s Bioenergy Program payments cease-they are currently slated to end in fiscal year 2006-feedstocks such as yellow grease will become increasingly important. "You can't be stuck in one feedstock commodity," Gebolys said. "Feedstock versatility is the single most critical determinant of supply stability and risk mitigation."

Glycerin refining an asset
New and potential biodiesel producers in the United States and across the globe are facing the challenge of what to do with crude glycerin formed as a byproduct of biodiesel production. Gebolys feels an increased supply of crude glycerin will soon outpace refining capabilities.

An oversupply will naturally cause the value of refined glycerin to fall. However, it won't fall as quickly as the value of crude glycerin, Gebolys pointed out. "There is so much volatility in the markets today, people are holding off putting refining capability in their biodiesel plants," Gebolys said. "That makes that existing capability all the more valuable, especially since the Florida plant is designed to handle crude from biodiesel."

The Lakeland plant opened the doors to its glycerin refinery in 2000. Typically, Winslow is looking for glycerin in the 85 percent to 90 percent glycerol range-product that contains no methanol and very little water. However, the Lakeland plant is capable of handling less desirable crude.

Purada currently refines crude glycerin from other biodiesel plants. The laboratory analyzes every shipment of feedstocks and crude bottoms that enter the plant. It's a process that ensures that "even poor quality crude glycerin can be turned into high-quality refined glycerin," according to Winslow.

"Ultimately that is why people that want to produce larger volumes of biodiesel need to have an alliance with a glycerin refiner," Winslow said. "Crude bottoms are a liability to them."

In order to have the glycerin refinery running at maximum capacity, the plant has brought in crude glycerin from outside sources. If the on-site biodiesel plant is running at 18 mmgy, it can fulfill the glycerin refinery's needs. The refinery typically produces 10 million pounds of 99.7 percent kosher refined glycerin.


Finding the right fit
Winslow has seen the Lakeland plant's evolution, from its start to becoming one of the nation's leading producers of biodiesel. He is appreciative of the stability World Energy has brought to the facility.

Since taking full ownership at Lakeland, World Energy has upgraded the glycerin facility and streamlined the biodiesel plant. Gebolys focused first and foremost on the safety and environmental aspects of the operation.

"They invested money to get the plant into a better operating condition," Winslow explained. "World Energy has provided a better benefits package and has certainly [been] able to make sure that all of the product has moved into the market."
Now Gebolys is committed to putting the plant's future in good hands. Gebolys said his goal has always been to ensure that the plant is owned by a company with a demonstrated commitment to high quality production. "We can provide the built-in off-take for the plant's output," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the right fit with an owner/operator."

The desired result would be similar to what World Energy is accomplishing throughout its biodiesel distribution network. World Energy recently signed an exclusive production agreement with Dow Haltermann Custom Processing, a branch of the Dow Chemical Co., to produce biodiesel in Houston. The company continues to expand its nationwide network of biodiesel producers and distributors. The concept of moving quickly is part of World Energy's culture, Gebolys said.

"[World Energy] will do whatever is necessary, naturally, to expand its market," Winslow said. "It is a company that is always looking for opportunities and alliances with others in order to promote that." n

Dave Nilles is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him by e-mail at dnilles@bbibiofuels.com or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
 
 
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