Biomass conference features biodiesel panel

By Ron Kotrba | October 25, 2010
Posted Nov. 4, 2010

BBI International's Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Atlanta this week featured a biodiesel-exclusive panel titled, Biodiesel from Waste and Low-Value Feedstock. The diversity of the panel-a professor/researcher, a small-scale producer, a pretreatment specialist and a representative of a global biodiesel process technology provider-mirrored the eclectic nature of the biodiesel industry.

Christina Borgese, formerly with BiofuelBox and now the senior engineer and cofounder of consulting firm PreProcess Inc., opened her discussion with the importance of diesel power and how just a 2 percent blend can replace all the lubricity lost in ultra-low sulfur diesel.

She gave an overview of the wide range of feedstock available for biodiesel processing, and spoke about the three D's of waste feedstock: the diverse array, distributed concentration and diluted fatty acid content. She said fats oils and greases in sewage waste water for instance is as low as 35 parts per million, since most of it is water and solids.

Borgese said her company uses a controlled algorithm to manage an intensified heat method that puts the heat where it's needed for feedstock pretreatment. This is a cost-saver, she said, because conventional plants use tanks with heated coils on the bottom to keep the sludge soluble, costing 3.5 cents a gallon for heating, which is relatively expensive for such a thin-margined business. Borgese also spoke about using liquid-liquid extraction with finished biodiesel to help pull the FOG out of the diluted waste feedstock. PreProcess Inc. is also working on an in situ super critical extraction method.

Frank Yeboah with North Carolina A&T University discussed his department of defense project looking at the impact of taking all the military waste vegetable oil for conversion to biodiesel.

He said if DOD was a country, its fuel consumption would rank 34 in the world, a testament to how much fuel our military operations use. He mentioned a project in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they took the 1,500 gallons of WVO produced monthly and, using a 40-gallon batch process, converted the waste to biodiesel.

Yeboah's project hopes to find exactly how much WVO is produced on military bases and barracks around the country, and what beneficial impacts that would have if all of it were to be converted to biodiesel. He said thus far nothing much at all is done with the waste oils produced by DOD.

Panelist Brandon Spence, cofounder and CEO of Midlands Biofuels in South Carolina, a community-scale biodiesel plant, said Midlands Biofuels is the only ASTM-certified biodiesel production facility in the state. He and his team also started the first green apprenticeship in South Carolina.

Spence said his company provides a service to the local food service industry that they are already paying for. "People like the local service," he said.

Regarding the lapse of the $1 per gallon blenders credit, Spence said, "We collect our own feedstock and we stand on our own two feet, we don't need the dollar. In order for this business to survive, we can't do it with subsidies."

Spence also said Midlands Biofuels is looking into solar applications for their process. Already the plant uses a lot of low heat, and does not use a centrifuge for dewatering. Midlands Biofuels also uses woody biomass for filtration, but one issue with that is the premature exhaustion of the wood chips.

The company also runs its process on boilerless technology. This began by taking apart a tankless hot water heater, and having an engineering firm look at the possibilities for using a modified device to provide process heat. The plant uses two modified tankless hot water heaters to preheat the feedstock to 198 degrees in a 4,000 gallon tank with two-inch heating coils. "It cost us only $400 for our heating system," Spence said.

The final speaker was Klaus Ruhmer, BDI BioEnergy International's North American business development manager. He spoke on RepCat, a process developed by BDI to process high free fatty acid feedstock. RepCat does esterification and transesterification in one step. "It's not quite super critical but it's elevated temperatures and pressures for conversion of lower grade high FFA feedstock," Ruhmer said.

He also says quality must remain a number one priority for producers, and one of the biggest jumps in technology to improve quality over the past few years has been distillation.

"In order to achieve profitability, quality must be the foundation, no shortcuts," he said. "The most important pillar after that is yield. You can't run on 80 to 85 percent yield."

Other necessities to make a biodiesel business profitable, he said, include having to sell high volumes of fuel as a commodity that's competitively priced with diesel fuel, as well as being feedstock flexible.

"The subsidy was great for producers, but bad for investors," Ruhmer said, "because they would never know if it was going to go away."

If feedstock prices change 5 percent, that can have a 40 percent impact on profit, he said. A 5 percent change in the price of biodiesel, or in the yield, can have a 50 percent impact on profitability. "For a 30 MMgy plant, a 1 percent loss in yield can cost $1 million."

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