Biodiesel Agents of Change

Biodiesel Magazine spotlights four companies—a respected producer, a service-oriented wholesaler, a 200-year old chemical firm, and a fuel conditioning company—that enable biodiesel's role as an effective change agent.
By Ron Kotrba | January 04, 2018

PQ Corp.
Founded in 1815, PQ Corp. is a U.S.-based chemical company specializing in silica-derived products that work in a myriad of markets, including petrochemicals, paints, food and beverage, and biodiesel. PQ first entered the biodiesel space in 2008 with the acquisition of Ineos Silicas, a purchase the company had worked toward for years as Ineos Silicas was a major supplier to the edible oil refining industry.

John Votta, global business director for PQ’s silica adsorbents unit, says biodiesel producers are familiar with the trademarked Sorbsil silica products as purification agents for their oil feedstocks. “In addition to manufacturing silica gel products with the trademarked name Sorbsil hydrogel adsorbents, we consult with prospective clients and assist in a purification strategy,” Votta says. This includes trial design and assistance in dose optimization, performance assessment and filtration. “PQ has a global supply position for Sorbsil silica to best serve prospective biodiesel clients,” he adds.

The Sorbsil hydrogel silicas are manufactured—not mined—in PQ’s plants around the world. “Product properties are tightly controlled for best performance for our biodiesel customers,” Votta says. The Sorbsil silica gels are amorphous, porous, pure silica powders. “We build into the silica products high-surface-area chemistry with designed pore size so oil impurities such as soaps and phospholipids can be adsorbed and removed from the oil,” says Neil Miller, business development manager with PQ. “The silica surface is hydrated and surface silanols are present to interact and bind with contaminants. The silica and contaminants are then filtered for complete removal, leaving behind the purified oil feedstock or biodiesel fuel.”

Sorbsil products can be used to both clean up feedstock to remove soaps, phospholipids and trace metals—allowing lower-cost feedstock to be used—and in post-transesterification to help remove some impurities left from processing, such as traces of methanol, mono and diglycerides, and sodium soaps. The two primary Sorbsil products used in biodiesel processing are Sorbsil R40F and Sorbsil R92 silica hydrogels, the latter being further processed for improved absorbance efficiency, Miller says. “The R92 product is used to adsorb higher levels of soaps, phospholipids and trace metals,” he says, adding R92 is more commonly used in biodiesel processing over R40F. PQ’s biodiesel clientele is a mix of both large and small producers, but use of its silica adsorbents is often by those processing multiple feedstocks.

“The ever-increasing move to more stringent fuel specifications will place extra demands on the biodiesel producer,” Votta says. “The use of Sorbsil silica hydrogel will assist the producer in meeting these demands in a cost-effective way.” 

To keep up with the changing industry, PQ has initiated laboratory expertise and is expanding its overall oil processing group. “We are focusing on customers’ specific needs and our silica expertise to address new issues as they arise in ever-changing oil quality feedstock,” Miller says. “The industry is continuing to show the need for improved biodiesel quality. It is our goal to meet and exceed these needs.”  

The presence, detection and treatment of sterol glucosides in biodiesel has been an ongoing area of investigation for a decade. Depending on feedstock and processing, it is possible for sterol glucosides to be present and solubilized in B100. The fuel can even pass specifications. According to Kevin Harrison, director of U.K.-based Contaminated Fuel Conditioning Services Ltd., measurement is often not sensitive enough to detect residual sterol glucosides in the refined fuel. Under certain conditions, they can come out of solution and cause filter plugging issues. Once sterols come out of solution, they cannot solubilize back into the fuel.

“We became aware of the problems with sterols and B100 through my involvement with maintaining and providing properly certified fuel and systems for the National Health Service and, as a consequence of engine shutdowns, it was found that sterol glucosides had blocked the filters,” Harrison says. “We then approached Coval to see if they could adjust the current formulation for Aquasolve to solve this problem.” Harrison says Aquasolve has a unique ability to control water in fuel. After adjusting the formula, Coval created the Biosolve formula and CFCS became Coval’s industrial representative in the various applications of its technology.

“Coval’s technology uses a complex series of compounds including surfactants to fully stabilize water in fuel by solubilizing the water into the fuel permanently,” Harrison says. “It is therefore fully biostatic and has developed numerous, well-documented benefits.”

Harrison says the B100 must be treated with Biosolve as soon after refining as possible. “We found the addition of this new compound is essential before the sterols start to crystalize and become an untreatable contaminant,” he says. “We established a protocol to allow for biofuel to be treated as soon after production as possible to prevent fuel degradation in both storage and transportation. Good fuel husbandry is particularly essential.”

CFCS and Coval conducted a six-week trial in the U.K. with NHS and its use of biodiesel in CHP plants after realizing fuel filter life was erratically reduced. The trial, which combined use of Biosolve and proper filter configuration, brought two issues to the forefront—the age and quality of the B100 provided by the producer and supplied by the distributor, and the need to have the correct filter systems in place.

As a result of the NHS trial, the proper protocol in both fuel management and filter configuration was confirmed. After tank cleaning and preparation, the fuel from the refinery should be filtered during offload to storage tanks and upload to tankers through a minimum 5-micron Absolute Bag filter system. The on-engine filtration system requires a minimum 20-inch housing supporting a 10-micron and 5-micron bag filter system to be changed every three months—standard OEM filters are not compliant with B100 regulations. Finally, annual tank cleaning is recommended.

Amerigreen Energy
Amerigreen Energy (AMG), the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based energy wholesaler, has been supplying American-made biofuels since 2004. Several years ago near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, AMG installed the second injection-blending facility in the U.S. capable of inline biodiesel blending. Today the company provides the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern markets with biofuels, refined products, propane, electricity, natural gas and more to its growing network of customers. As a BQ-9000-certified marketer, AMG’s customers are terminal stockholders and retail distributors. “BQ-9000 confidently allows us to stand behind our product from a quality perspective,” says Jason Lawrence, AMG’s vice president of renewables fuels. “ASTM is critical and we strictly adhere to it. We have additional focus on parameters contributing to cold-flow operability. Our climate region and commitment to customers require it.”

“We connect the dots in the supply chain,” says CEO Steve McCracken. “Our logistical advantage allows us to buy from biodiesel producers across the country and cost-effectively supply it to market. Our roots are in the retail fuel distributor business and we occupy a unique place in the supply chain. Retail and commercial delivery logistical experience allows us to fill a gap. We break up massive volumes and deliver material to local distribution tanks. Our relationships with our production and hauling partners make it possible for us to manage all tank sizes, from 20,000 gallons to 20,000 barrels. We’re proud to have a blemish-free record to keep blended product flowing at terminals and distributor racks amidst unexpected seasonal and market demand spikes.  It’s a testimony of our valuable relationships with terminal staff, producers and haulers. It’s teamwork at its finest.”

McCracken says biodiesel has been a change agent for AMG and its customers to grow into what they are today. “Our experience provides the platform to work with fuel distributors to help them connect biodiesel’s benefits to the value they represent to their marketplace,” he says. “Biodiesel doesn’t do it on its own. Fuel distributors are able to use their biodiesel story to ignite change in their business. Sure, they sell a commodity, but their value and customer commitment go far beyond price. We work to help them embrace biodiesel’s benefits to tell that story.”

AMG prides itself in supplying 100 percent American-made energy when possible. “We educate every distributor about domestic supply,” McCracken says. Mike Devine, AMG’s Northeast sales and marketing representative, says AMG offers an American Fuels Program. “We can assure it in the market at specific terminals,” Devine says. “We have customers who’ll pay extra for domestic biodiesel or petroleum products.”

AMG is more than an energy wholesaler. It provides outreach, education, RINs management and logistical support—but the real value is unmatched customer service. “Our customers aren’t a market short,” McCracken says. “They’re customers and deserve to be treated as such. We help them be leaders in their market. It’s about personal relationships and trust, with biodiesel as that agent of change.”

Western Iowa Energy
Western Iowa Energy, a 45 MMgy BQ-9000-certified biodiesel producer in Wall Lake, Iowa, made headlines in late 2017 when it acquired the 15 MMgy Agron Bioenergy in Watsonville, California. Western Iowa Energy’s Wall Lake plant was built in 2005-’06 as a collaborative effort between Crown Iron Works, Todd and Sargent, and Renewable Energy Group Inc., says Mike Altmanshofer, vice president of operations for Western Iowa Energy and Agron Bioenergy. The facility started biodiesel production in May 2006 as a 30 MMgy plant. Brad Wilson, president and general manager of both companies, says the Wall Lake plant has undergone major improvements over the years, including tank farm expansions in 2012 and 2014, and a process rate increase in 2014 that took production capacity from 30 to 45 MMgy, coupled with a biodiesel load-out capacity increase to accommodate moving the additional gallons. Wilson says Western Iowa Energy stays on top of market changes and the continually fluctuating industry by continuing to optimize production processes and efficiencies to maintain its low-cost producer status.

Western Iowa Energy’s Wall Lake facility is a multifeedstock plant, utilizing animal fats, distillers corn oil, used cooking oil, canola oil and soybean oil, changing its inputs based on market demand and price, Wilson says. “We are built with flexibility by design,” he adds, “so it very easy to adapt to any market changes. And we work very closely with the National Biodiesel Board on several fronts and take advantage of its offerings, so we usually know about any changes before they actually happen.”

Altmanshofer provides Biodiesel Magazine a brief overview of the Wall Lake biodiesel production process. “Feedstock is received and unloaded into one of three 500,000-gallon feedstock tanks, depending upon the feedstock,” he says. “Then, the feedstocks with high free fatty acids (FFA) are pretreated to remove FFA, metals and other impurities that would interfere with transesterification, and they are then sent back out to an intermediate tank.” Altmanshofer says refined feedstocks such as RBD soybean oil are brought directly into the process. “Our process is a simple transesterification system utilizing a water-wash-based system and full methanol recovery,” he says. “After the biodiesel is produced, it is cold filtered and sent out to one of five 500,000-gallon biodiesel storage tanks. From these tanks, product is loaded out either via rail or truck, depending upon the customer’s request.”

Wilson says the negotiations with Agron Bioenergy started in August 2017. “We made this acquisition to be more active in the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard  market,” he says. “And it fits perfectly with our business model to grow Western Iowa Energy members’ investments.” The assets of the acquisition include a 15 MMgy biodiesel refinery in Watsonville, California, and patents encompassing Agron Bioenergy’s centrifuge system and distillation steps to eliminate water-washing in biodiesel production. Agron Bioenergy was founded in 2012. Wilson says plans for the assets include putting them to use producing high-quality BQ-9000-accredited biodiesel and providing a low-cost fuel source in California. Wilson says no other acquisitions are in the works at this time.

When asked what technology he thinks will be “the next big thing” in biodiesel production, Altmanshofer says, “I honestly don’t see any next big thing. There are several other processing techniques in the industry including distillation, solid catalysis, glycerolysis, enzymatic and several other high-pressure, high-heat methods, all with their own issues and drawbacks. Until the industry receives some measure of assurance of longevity and growth of renewable volume obligations under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, the continuance of new developments may be on hold.”

Western Iowa Energy’s competitive advantages in the cutthroat business of biodiesel include zero debt, a healthy balance sheet and the reinvestment of roughly $20 million back into its plant through various fixed asset additions. “Our original member investors have been paid back more than their original investment by way of distributions,” Wilson says. Other advantages include being a small, locally owned business, having Archer Daniels Midland Co. as its trusted marketing partner, and being fortunate enough to retain employees who are engaged and take ownership in the job. When people hear the name Western Iowa Energy, Wilson says, “We want them to think two things,” he says. “A low-cost fuel provider and the best place to work.”

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