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- Testing Small-Scale Biodiesel Quality
- Preparing Feedstock for Biodiesel Production
- Beef Tallow and Hydrogenated Oils
- Methanol Vapors in BioPro Biodiesel Processors
- Glycerin Layer in Biodiesel Production
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I just returned from a federal prison in Maryland. I was “in” for four days training inmates on how to make biodiesel in an appliance we make called The BioPro™. It turns out that there are 116 Federal prisons in the United States and, by law, all of the estimated 210,000 inmates therein interned must be sustained and kept alive with food. As is the case with all dining facilities, a prison will always generate used cooking oil in the process of feeding their inmates. That used cooking oil, fats and all, can be poured into our automated BioPros™ and, with the press of a button, converted easily into premium grade biodiesel fuel.
‘So what,’ you say?
This is the “what”: A prison can do this for 90 cents per gallon! Such is the cost of all of the inputs and electricity required to make the biodiesel in a BioPro™. Considering that biodiesel is a fuel that will run in any diesel engine, neat (B100) or mixed with diesel, without any need to convert the engine, and further noting that biodiesel burns approximately 80 to 90% cleaner than regular diesel, you have a rather emphatic win here. The recycling of tax dollars into domestically made renewable fuel at a fraction of the cost of petroleum diesel, in a machine made in the USA. (…want ice cream with that pie?)
The prison in Maryland was extremely clean. There was a high-security section where the meaner felons were kept and there was a low-security section where the white collar criminals with more manageable sentences were held. The latter, called “the camp”, was where the garage and the biodiesel production was located. The Camp didn’t have an outer wall to keep inmates in.
“What stops them from fleeing”? I asked the garage foreman affectionately referred to as “Smitty” by the inmates.
“They know it’s not worth it,” said Smitty. “We’d eventually find them and their sentences are too short to bother.” Better to wait it out.
The five guys who were assigned to making biodiesel were there because they were truly interested and wanted to learn.
“These guys have nothing but time.”
I asked Smitty what these guys were in for. He shrugged and said, “Drugs.” Anything else, I asked? Long pause. “No, just drugs,” he said. Later, when we were weighing out chemicals, I noticed that these guys could load up 3060 grams of sodium hydroxide with alarming alacrity.cThere is nothing like free labor. (Actually inmates were paid 40 cents per hour).
Smitty and his assistants had made biodiesel before, in a machine made in Costa Rica, and when they discovered how easy it was to use the BioPro™, they were visibly excited.
The machines, since they are automated, reduce labor tremendously but they still need to be loaded and unloaded and inputs need to be managed. When they weren’t working with the equipment, the inmates could make soap from the glycerin byproduct, or they could sit around on old office chairs watching and talking. On the final day, to make sure they’d been paying attention, I gave them a quiz. They all knew the answers. They’d paid attention and actually wanted to know. One inmate, a guy we referred to as “Morpheus” (as in “The Matrix”), told us he’d be out in a month and asked if there was work in biodiesel. I told him the industry was young, misunderstood, but growing none the less.
I have recently been talking to a lot of college, university and even high school administrators, and I am optimistic the upcoming school year will see a surge in small-scale biodiesel production at the campus level. There are plenty of good reasons for this increased focus on biodiesel. Allow me to enumerate just a few of these, after which I am happy to share with you – in a one-on-one (or communal) head thumping Eureka moment – the logic, the elegance and the timeliness of Campus Biodiesel and how these factors combine in a veritable fire of logical potentiality. (No stranger to the ivory tower experience, I have taken the liberty of utilizing an oft relied upon study aid: Cliff Note: It really does make so much sense).
Institutions of higher learning are built to innovate. On the environmental front, colleges, universities and K-12 institutions are actively working to make a difference, and as a result biodiesel is becoming mainstream. Give us a call and let’s talk about how you can join over 100 of your colleagues in the growing movement to benefit from small-scale biodiesel production.
Cliff note summary: call Springboard Biodiesel to learn how to become a campus hero.
I’m just back from the [other] NRA show, where no guns where needed, but a healthy appetite was demanded. It was Springboard Biodiesel’s first National Restaurant Association conference, and we were impressed. Thousands of restaurant owners and hundreds of companies that sell to those restaurant owners were collected together in a sea of stainless steel equipment, free food samples and innovative restaurant ideas. Springboard Biodiesel was there to inform restaurant owners from all over the world that they had a new and essential restaurant appliance option – the BioPro™ biodiesel processing appliance. Give that restaurants are the world’s primary producer of waste cooking oil, and given that waste cooking oil is an outstanding feedstock to turn into biodiesel, restaurants have the unique ability to produce a valuable fuel commodity from a less valuable (essentially free) waste stream. With the economic metrics of “Gourmet Biodiesel” (our tagline for the show), a biodiesel appliance can substantially enhance a restaurant’s overall profitability and elevate its environmental marketing cache. As such, we argued – politely – every restaurant should consider owning this appliance – “You have your refrigerator, your oven, your dishwasher and your biodiesel appliance, and only one of them writes you a check every time you press start”. The response from the conference was outstanding, as both large (800 unit chains) and small (single restaurant) operators enthusiastically peppered us with questions and comments. All of them recognized the inherent advantage that they had in this waste-to-fuel arena, and given that we’d brought our shiny BioPro™ 190 with us, they had the opportunity to see and touch the appliance and better visualize how it might fit in their specific locale. The restaurant industry is huge. It’s progressive, and it values profitable innovation. We thoroughly enjoyed our first NRA show. We met some impressive restauranteurs and we further strengthened our understanding of how restaurant owners can simply and profitably create biodiesel from their used cooking oil. The restaurant industry is full of innovative entrepreneurs, who recognize an opportunity when its presented. We’re going to like working with these guys.
As you all likely know, biodiesel is a wonderfully biodegradable substance that typically breaks down quickly in the environment. While this is a good thing, it has its downsides too. Most notably, the fact that biodiesel is much more susceptible than petroleum diesel to microbial attack and oxidation. As biodiesel decomposes, it forms acidic compounds (giving it a rancid smell) as well as many small polymer chains and large chemical compounds that are typically somewhat polar. (The polarity of molecules is one of the largest factors that determine if they will dissolve in a particular solvent or not. Polarity in a molecule is caused by uneven electrical charge distribution. One can think of polar molecules as being somewhat like little magnets wanting to stick together and non-polar molecule as being like little pieces of gravel that don’t have a strong affinity for one another.) If this course goes too far, sediment (composed of these polymers and large molecules) will begin to form.
A logical supposition to make when there is some biodiesel that seems aged would be to blend it with petroleum diesel to dilute it and then burn it that way. Unfortunately though, this is actually a very bad thing. Due to the fact that biodiesel is slightly polar, it is able dissolve many of the large molecules which are slightly polar as well. In solution, these molecules are typically able to be successfully burned in a diesel engine.
Upon mixing with USLD though, something terrible happens. Because ULSD is very non-polar, (even much more so than typical LSD) the compounds that used to be dissolved in biodiesel fall out of solution. In some cases , this can form a large amount of precipitants and sediment. If you do this in your fuel tank, you are likely to almost immediately get some clogging in your fuel filters.
If you want to see this same type of phenomenon occur in a test tube, dissolve 1 part veg oil in 10 parts isopropyl alcohol. The nonpolar oil is able to dissolve somewhat in the medium-polarity isopropyl. Now add 2 parts water to the solution. All of the sudden, the oil falls out of the solution because the highly polar water kicks it out. It is a classic demonstration of how a change in polarity of the solvent can cause solutes to precipitate out of it.
So how can you keep this from happening in your fuel tank. One strategy would be to mix the old biodiesel with ULSD in a separate vessel, and then filter or settle out the sediment. Another would be to try to treat the biodiesel in question with magnesol. We have seen good results in using this product to remove polar contaminants and allowing the fuel to be burned without problems.
The best thing of course, is to prevent the fuel from oxidizing to begin with. Blending it with petroleum diesel or adding a little bit of stabilizer can mitigate this potential problem.
In conclusion, any fuel ; petroleum based or not will eventually degrade. Because it is biodegradable, biodiesel will typically be prone to this degradation even more so than petroleum based fuels. With a few simple precautions however (more on this in future posts) problems that could be associated with this can be easily avoided. And even if fuel is somewhat oxidized it can be effectively salvaged.
Here at Springboard Biodiesel, we hear a lot of questions and erroneous information about what type of feedstocks can be successfully turned into biodiesel. The following “1000 words or less” should hopefully clear up a little bit of that. Note that the following post does not take into account impurities such as water and FFA content of various feedstocks.
To begin with, the primary stuff that feedstock is made from is triglycerides. These triglycerides are composed of three long fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. Note that as shown in the figure below, the glycerol is only a very small part of the triglyceride molecule. Most of the bulk of the molecule (as well as the energy contained therein) is in the long hydrocarbon chains called fatty acid chains that are attached to it. As long as an oil or fat has this basic structure, it is a good candidate for being turned into biodiesel.
Are there any oils that don’t have this structure?
Sure! Take a look at some of the medley of things that you might find in petroleum diesel fuel.
Because the biodiesel reaction primarily happens at the points where the fatty acid chain meets the glycerol, the molecules shown above would obviously not be able to be turned into biodiesel.
Therefore, the primary factor of an oil or fat that determines if it can be turned into biodiesel is if it was initially composed of triglycerides. There are some natural oils such as orange oil that are not composed of triglycerides. Typically though, these are only found in trace quantities. Most natural oils that can be found in bulk are triglycerides. The following are some commonly asked questions that relate to this fact and further explain its ramifications.
The more highly unsaturated a fat is, the lower the gel point typically is. Therefore, unsaturated fats are excellent for cold weather biodiesel production and use. The downside of unsaturated fats is that they will often be more prone to oxidation and rancidification than their saturated counterparts. Typically, biodiesel made from highly unsaturated fats will require an oxidative stabilizer to be used safely as fuel.
–Daniel Bowen, Senior Chemist at Springboard Biodiesel
I just got back from a great vacation. I was out all of last week (plus the weekends on either end), driving, hiking, and biking through and camping in the canyons and plateaus of southern Utah.
We drove my 27 year old Land Cruiser, which spends most of its time burning biodiesel, but which had to be fed a lot of petroleum diesel on this trip since we were so far from home. I did manage to stuff 22 gallons of biodiesel in the tank before I left, as well as bring another 5 gallons in a gas can, but by the time I got back home, I had purchased an burned an additional 134 gallons of petroleum diesel. I do get a tad better fuel mileage with petroleum diesel, and so I was quite pleased with the fuel mileage I did attain. My rig, loaded down like the Joad-mobile from the Grapes of Wrath and with coefficient of drag of a cinder block, averaged a hair under 20 mpg, and hit 21 mpg from Cedar City to Tonopah on the way home.
But after patting myself on the back for this achievement (not real great for a Prius, but it’s all relative), I wondered just how much CO2 I had actually emancipated into nature during our 10-day outing.
134 gallons of petroleum diesel weighs, on average 422 kg, or 930 lbs., a bit under a half of ton. But by burning up this fuel, it turns out my beast managed to spew way over a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere. How so?
Well, again on average, each gallon of diesel fuel contains about 226 moles of carbon. (For those whose recollection of chemistry class is a bit foggy, a mole is a huge number of atoms, specifically 6.02 x 10^23, which is, incidentally, referred to as Avagadro’s number. Since a carbon is so tiny to begin with, speaking in terms of moles rather than in terms of numbers of actual atoms brings quantities of these atoms into a realm that we can actually relate to.) Each mole of carbon weighs roughly 12 grams. So each gallon of diesel fuel has 226 moles X 12 grams/mole = 2712 grams of carbon.
CO2 is formed in the combustion process, when each carbon atom joins forces with two oxygen atoms. A mole of oxygen weighs around 16 grams. So a mole of these CO2 atoms weighs 12+16+16 grams = 44 grams.
So then, if each gallon of fuel has 226 moles of carbon that are burned and converted into CO2, you wind up with 226 x 44 grams/mole = 9944 grams (21.91 lbs) of CO2 produced per gallon of fuel. So for my little excursion which consumed 134 gallons of diesel fuel, I pumped a grant total of about 2936 lbs of CO2 into our atmosphere, almost 1.5 tons.
Now, this is a simplified calculation. The actually carbon content of diesel can vary a bit, a some carbon is emitted as carbon monoxide, unburned fuel, aromatics, and VOC’s, and thus isn’t converted into CO2. These factors, though are relatively minor, in fact my calculation is conservative compared to the EPA’s number of 22.3 lbs of CO2 per gallon of fuel burned.
I don’t care who you are, how much concern you do or don’t have for the environment, or how concerned you are or aren’t about global warming, that’s an awful lot of CO2.
On average, burning biodiesel that is made from recycled feedstocks reduces net CO2 emissions by about 19.3 lbs per gallon. (Even if I’d have burned soybean oil based biodiesel, it’d still be a reduction of nearly 17.3 lbs per gallon). So if I’d burned 134 gallons of our RVO based biodiesel, rather than the petroleum diesel I bought at the pump, I’d have reduced my net CO2 emissions by 2586 pounds, well over a ton. (I would’ve also saved about $300 as well).
Then again … I suppose it could’ve been worse:
I am the CEO of a small clean-tech manufacturing company focused on small-scale biodiesel production equipment. Springboard Biodiesel’s equipment is generally considered “best in class”; we manufacture everything in the US and probably source over 80% of our materials and parts from within Butte County in Northern California. Focused as we are on biodiesel, we pay attention to our carbon footprint, and calculate that our 600+ unit installed base has the production capacity to produce over 5MM gallons of ASTM-grade biodiesel (that’s good enough for the US government to allow it to be sold for a profit) and remove over 85MM pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere. It helps that our customers use our products to make ASTM-grade biodiesel for less than the price of diesel.
Manufacturing, cleantech, greenhouse gas reductions, made in the USA: what’s not to like? Unfortunately, everything. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job; I am passionate about our products; I go to work every day knowing that I am engaged in a business that has the ability to benefit a great number of people. However, the process of managing our nation’s voracious energy appetite and weaning even a small percentage of the economy off of petroleum is a battle that we as a society do not yet seem to have the visceral desire to attempt. As a result, the obstacles that face the biodiesel industry are generally artificial, bureaucratic and lobby-money based.
Without an easily “media-fiable” disaster (apparently dumping 190 million gallons of oil into a once productive fishing ground doesn’t pull the heartstrings like it once did), the empirical need to find alternative fuels remains unfelt. The Biodiesel industry is, perhaps, the poster child for our Country’s alternative energy policy of benign neglect. For five (5) consecutive years, the US govt, under the none-too-environmentally-subtle president Bush legislated tax credits that supported a small but rapidly growing commercial biodiesel industry. As a result, over 50,000 jobs were created, billions of dollars were invested in infrastructure, and in 2008 nearly 12 billion pounds of CO2 were kept out of the atmosphere.
In 2010, the tax credit has been allowed to expire, resulting in a dramatically shrunken industry that has shed over 20,000 jobs and sees itself staring into the maw of inconsequence. If you visit the National Biodiesel Board’s website, you will find a pathetic countdown widget updating you on the 243 days, 14 hours and 2 minutes that the industry has been without the necessary legislative support embodied in the biodiesel producer’s credit.
My company has been developing some exciting new products that are aimed at the small-scale local production market. This is an under-covered sub-sector of the biodiesel market (given what I’ve described above, you may worry that almost by definition this area is fruitless), but we believe that both in the US and overseas, we have a compelling market opportunity. With the extension of the tax credit, our financial plan indicates that our planned network of 65 small scale biodiesel production units (we call our unique system the ILP™) will be able to produce almost 20 million gallons of ASTM-grade biodiesel – surely just a pittance in the brobdignagian world of energy extraction, consumption, demand and wealth creation. But hang on, doing the right thing need not cost us an arm and a leg. In fact, while the “cost” of supporting this environmentally friendly fuel will set the US tax payer back $19MM in tax credits over 5 years (in the case of Springboard Biodiesel’s planned production), the returns far exceed the support – economically and socially. By investing in this vital industry, innovative cleantech companies will be allowed to grow and mature, such that the tax credit can expire without condemning the industry to either death or emigration (the rest of the world is far more interested in building a biodiesel economy).
Springboard Biodiesel is a very small company. However, with our product roadmap and a reinstatement of the tax credit, we plan to create 165 new jobs with an estimated cumulative payroll in excess of $12MM. In addition, we will contribute over $10MM in direct taxes, pay local suppliers over $13MM, and our products will keep over 320MM pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere. So roughly $35M of economic returns created for the cost of $19MM. That’s an investment with a double digit return – somewhat of a rarity in this economic environment (it should be noted that this calculation places zero value on our positive environmental impact nor the local “ripple effect” of job creation).
And yet the legislation necessary to support the commercial biodiesel industry continues to stall in the Senate – a dysfunctional house that of late has threatened to succumb to complete “Balkanization”. The formidable lobbying armies of both Big Oil and the US automotive industry view biodiesel as either an unnecessary distraction (oil) or a potential cost (cars). And the average American is informationally overstimulated such that increasingly black and white issues are merely different shades of grey, too difficult to focus on for long periods of time, and certainly not worthy of deeper exploration. In short, the age old newspaper rule still resonates: unless it bleeds, it can’t lead.
So while I wait for the blood – another oil disaster, $100/barrel, some insane conflict in the Middle East – I find myself bouncing between two perspectives: Glass half full and glass half empty. The former is more uplifting, but the latter is gaining momentum as I hear Big Oil executives dismiss biodiesel as “an additive product, not a fuel”, or I see yet another commercial biodiesel plant shutter, or I casually calculate, again, that the US consumes almost $200B of diesel fuel annually and derives the majority of it from foreign countries. Yesterday, I read of the hottest summer on record, again, and I worry that every day activities, conveniences and joys that we have always taken for granted will be missing from my Children’s and my children’s children’s lives.
Bellyaching is all too easy, and unfortunately ignoring the failings of our elected officials is easier than actively working to change the status quo. However, at the end of the day, all we can do is what we believe is right. I believe that substituting biodiesel for diesel is good for every single constituency I can think of. I’ll continue to work towards the commercial success of biodiesel. I encourage all of us to make our preferences known. Be it biodiesel or any other issue. Don’t let the status quo destroy our future. Make alternative energy a voting issue and hold do-nothing-but-squabble-for-the-cameras politicians accountable. The maw of inconsequence is not good for this country or this planet.
Springboard Biodiesel LLC, incorporated in 2008, is a biodiesel equipment manufacturer that is leading the way in developing a vibrant, small-scale biodiesel production industry.