New biodiesel feedstock research center, lab opens

By Ron Kotrba | July 15, 2009
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Posted July 29, 2009

Renewable Energy Group Inc. cut the ribbon to its new research center in Ames, Iowa, on July 28. Making the ceremony's opening remarks was REG chairman and CEO Jeff Stroburg, who said the laboratory and research facility will help advance "new technologies for the new bio age."

A main priority for the research center will be development and commercialization of new feedstocks for biodiesel production. "It's a very difficult project to take 50 different feedstocks because every one of them converts differently," Stroburg said. "We have to have more feedstocks than soybean oil."

More than 20 different feedstocks-plant oils and animal fats ranging from the routine to the exotic-are being studied by REG's researchers in Ames. According to REG biochemical engineer Shannon Sanford, some of these feedstocks, such as Chinese Tallow Tree oil, were not easy to obtain for testing and analysis.

Seven full-time REG researchers work in the lab on feedstock commercialization, biodiesel production support, quality testing and feedstock analysis. Some of the feedstock information learned at REG's new research center will be made public.

Other research already underway at the new facility includes developing a method to detect sterol glucosides at levels below 50 parts per million. Parag Shah, REG research chemical engineer, said this work builds on Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s previous sterol glucoside detection work, which couldn't identify low levels of the contaminant. Sterol glucosides are thought to be responsible in part for precipitate formation in biodiesel at temperatures above the cloud point.

REG researchers are also studying free and entrained moisture in B100, blends and ultra low sulfur diesel, to better understand the relationship between moisture and ULSD, biodiesel, and blends of the two fuels. This is thought to be important research needed to move the pipelining of biodiesel forward.

Stroburg said the new facility is not only being used for research and lab support to REG's network of biodiesel plants, but REG will also partner will other companies who need additional lab space. "There's a lot of lab space out there, but there's also a lot of lab space demand," he said.

One of these partners is General Atomics, the company working with REG and the U.S. military to study how battlefield-derived plastic waste dissolved in biodiesel performs in gensets used on the ground at military encampments. The system includes a grinder that chews up waste plastics and dissolves it in biodiesel that is kept at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit as it is fed warm to the genset. The dissolved plastic makes the fuel higher strength than regular biodiesel. General Atomics is currently retrofitting a 60 kilowatt genset in Iowa just north of Ames. According to Doug Kostlan, REG manager of corporate business development, the genset is similar to those being used in Afghanistan today and is equipped with camouflaged paint to allow researchers to closely mirror real life scenarios during the studies.

In total REG invested about $2 million in its new research center, and received a $740,000 investment from the Iowa Power Fund. The lab was built by Story Construction, which used 11 local subcontractors during construction.

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