Piedmont Biofuels unveils details of enzymatic processing

By Ron Kotrba | February 08, 2011

Rachel Burton, Piedmont Biofuels research director, spoke at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo about the research collaboration between Piedmont and Novozymes during a panel on production innovations.

The enzymatic research began in 2008 and started with funding from the state of North Carolina. The project has since received federal money from the U.S. DOE, Burton said. The pilot unit began running last year.

Piedmont’s enzymatic R&D has been focused on both esterification and transesterification, and began with asking questions such as, “Can we hit the bound glycerin spec?” and “Can we hit acid value spec?” as well as, “How much water can we handle?”

The two specific enzymes being used in this research, Burton said, are CAL-B (Novozymes 435) and TL-IM. “CAL-B works well with and without water for esterification, and TL-IM works well in transesterification,” she told the crowd.

 She said residence time is between 600 and 2,000 minutes, but this is being optimized on the pilot plant in Pittsboro, N.C. Glycerin coming off the process is 99.6 percent pure.

For Bulk esterification, Piedmont is seeing an FFA reduction from 100 percent down to 20 percent with feedstocks such as brown grease and palm processing residues in 80 minutes. The FFAs are converted directly to esters, she said, and in 60 minutes the 2 to 20 percent FFA feedstock with higher moisture is brought down to an acid value within specification, 0.22, along with low moisture.

In addition, six to 12 times less methanol is necessary with enzymatic processing versus that needed with acid chemical esterification.

“This can be a direct replacement for sulfuric acid esterification,” Burton said. “We call it the FAeSTER process—fatty acid esterification.”

She said Piedmont is rapidly moving from pilot work on this to developing bolt-on commercialization units. The commercial target is to drive costs down to between 15 and 25 cents a gallon.

“We’re looking for high FFA feedstock to test so if you have them, send them to us, we’d be happy to try them out.”

The promising new process requires much less methanol and therefore there is a lot less methanol to recover.

Also there’s a significant difference in capital costs when comparing that of enzymatic processing versus acid esterification. For a 3 MMgy plant, an acid esterification system would cost $900,000 versus about $300,000 for an enzymatic system.

“This is scale neutral,” Burton said. “And it eliminates the need for chemical acids for esterification, and there’s no excess methanol rectification.” Ultimately the process can help make a biodiesel plant more Earth-friendly since enzymes are natural proteins. 

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