Continuous Process Intensification for Next Generation Biodiesel Technology

Chemist Inder Pal Singh and his company, SBI Fine Chemicals Inc., supply high quality intermediates to the world's pharmaceutical giants. Now a spin-off company, SBI BioEnergy, is focusing on demonstrating a biodiesel process that offers cost and operational benefits.
By Inder Pal Singh | June 15, 2010
An advanced proprietary process and associated catalyst that resolves many of the well-recognized issues facing the global biodiesel industry has been developed by SBI BioEnergy Inc. Its next-generation technology is based on a proprietary solid catalyst formula that processes virtually all plant oils and animal derived fat feedstock, as well as free fatty acids (FFAs), to produce high purity biodiesel with high-grade glycerol as a byproduct.

Biodiesel is produced largely using batch reactors. Technology for production of this nature has not fundamentally changed in 200 years. SBI is focused on creating technology that makes changes and brings simplicity to industrial processes.

The technology the company has developed is SBI's Process Intensifying Continuous Flow-Through Reaction, a heterogeneous catalyst-based process adapted for the production of biodiesel from a variety of feedstocks. At the core of this technology is a carefully designed proprietary blended catalyst formula that has a long, active life. The catalyst is unaffected by the presence of water and is recyclable, which eliminates the need for continuous replenishing of the catalyst. The catalyst is capable of transesterification of triglycerides and esterification of the FFAs present in feedstock simultaneously and effectively into biodiesel, in one step. Importantly, the process consumes no chemicals or water at any stage and produces no waste. The catalyst is expected to last for extended periods without losing its activity, and in case its performance is compromised due to variations in feedstock quality, it can be rejuvenated to its original performance with a simple nonchemical process. The output from the biodiesel process exceeds ASTM and European standards, and the long-life renewable catalyst is not consumed in processing.

Numerous features are offered and demonstrated by this proprietary continuous processing technology. SBI has successfully processed multiple feedstocks, which is critical since different geographic regions will rely on wide-ranging feedstock supplies that are locally produced or based on suitability for reasons such as climate, growing season and cloud point limitations.

The catalyst, named SBI-2710, is insensitive to the origin or source of feedstock. Feedstocks that can be utilized could be a triglyceride and FFAs containing oil or fat such as canola, camelina, soya, safflower, algae, flax, hemp, rapeseed, palm, coconut, jatropha, cottonseed and sunflower oils, or beef tallow, pork lard and the like or from cooking, or a mixture thereof. Also, SBI-2710 can utilize 100 percent FFAs and mixtures with triglycerides in almost any ratios without fouling or deteriorating.
On the environmental side, the SBI process uses no water and no additional chemicals (acids/bases) other than methanol, which is captured and recycled back into the process. This reduces or eliminates washing, cleanup and disposal concerns and costs. There is no waste stream or any residues to be disposed of as the glycerol produced is of extremely high quality and may be sold into high-value pharmaceutical markets rather than constitute a disposal stream. An extremely low-carbon footprint results through reduced greenhouse gas production by a more than 90 percent reduction in energy use. The proprietary, fully continuous closed-loop process and reactor system reduces or eliminates volatile chemical risks.

The innovative design of the equipment in combination with process intensification, continuous processing and fewer operations requiring heating, allows continuous recovery and recycling of heat energy. This reduces energy consumption not conveniently achieved in the conventional batch and semi-batch processes. Conventional processes can require external cooling using water to remove unused excess process heat energy, which necessitates extensive use of water and electricity.
Capital costs are a major concern for producers, investors and bankers. SBI estimates the cost per installed capacity unit to be one-third or less than the capital cost of conventional technology plants, as many conventional components would no longer be required. The process technology allows for scalable plant size from micro-skid mounted to the largest industrial scale. The plant design offers a very small physical footprint, less than 20 percent of conventional biodiesel plants.

The simplicity of the process also results in lowered operating costs, projected at less than one-half of the operating costs for conventional plants, depending on operating region. A major operational benefit is the production of greater than 98 percent pure high-value colorless glycerin, providing additional revenues versus incurring landfill disposal costs.

Also significantly reduced is the number of operational control points, typically 135 for conventional plants, down to only seven for the SBI process. This reinforces the simplicity, safety and both cost and operational efficiency of the process. Labor costs are also reduced by employing fewer operators and enabling flexible operating profiles.

The Edmonton, Alberta-based company has gone from its original test facility to increased capacity, currently 10,500 liters (2,774 gallons) per year and expects to be demonstrating a one liter per minute scale (525,000 liters per year) in September. The full industrial scale, 20-plus liters per minute or 10-plus million liters per year, is planned to be available for processors by the third quarter of 2011. Larger capacities can be accomplished using multiple parallel reactors.

The next stages of development and commercialization are being supported by various funding agencies and a consortium of parties involved with renewable energy: CanGen Energy Corp., novaNAIT, Olds College School of Innovation, Alfa Laval in partnership with AT AGRAR-Technik GmbH & Co., and Spartan Controls.

"The simplicity and efficiency of this process should allow us to implement the production of biodiesel using this technology in most global markets due to its significant operational and product advantages," said Rick Henschel, president of CanGen Energy.
SBI BioEnergy's primary development focus is on the licensing of process and processors both on an individual plant basis and by region/territory. The company also plans to partner with larger EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) firms in its target markets to build turn-key retrofit or new facilities that are owned by licensees. In addition to the obvious advantages offered to new-build plants, the operating cost savings and high-value glycerol sales should enable marginal or even money-losing operations to retrofit and turn the corner to sustained profitability

Inder Pal Singh is president and CEO of SBI BioEnergy Inc. Reach him at (780) 413-9832 or
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