Boiler Cleanse

I spent my Saturday today with three employees flushing out the boiler and making some minor changes to flow sights and tank connections.

The original boiler installation was done by a previous employee using PEX.  Now, there are several advantages to using PEX, and it’s used consistently in the plumbing industry.  It’s flexible, has reasonably high heat tolerance (200°F), and is easy to make connections to fittings.

However, using it for boiler connections to tanks is probably a bad idea.  Turns out the material degrades pretty fast under high heat, and builds up residue in your boiler.  So, today we spent about 4 hours flushing out the boiler to remove the deposits and “gunk” that has been lurking in our boiler lines for a few years now.

We’d replaced the PEX lines with 2″ steel pipe several months ago, but the gunk didn’t go with it, it was still inside the tanks and the boiler itself, and had to be flushed out with several rinses.  That, and installing some new flow sight gauges now gives us a good look inside the boiler lines and how our water flow is moving.

We’ll see this week how much improvement we’ll see in our heat transfer now that we’ve got a squeaky clean boiler system.  But if nothing else, at least we can actually SEE the water flowing through the pipes now.

 

Lobbying in DC

I spent the entire day this past Thursday in Washington D.C. lobbying my congressmen to bring their attention to matters relating to the biodiesel industry.  Specifically, the biodiesel tax credit and the EPA RFS mandate limits for 2013, which is currently in jeopardy of being left at the current 1 billion gallon limit set for 2012.  The problem is that we already hit the 1 billion gallon mark (and then some), and leaving it at that same level for 3 years in a row guarantees a stagnant industry that will not grow if there is not additional demand to create the incentive to increase production.

This was my first time walking around the halls of the House of Representatives and the Senators.  It was pretty interesting, really.  What amazed me was how easy it was to just drop in (if you didn’t have an appointment, which is preferred obviously) on your congressman and most likely at least be able to meet briefly with an aide.   What amazed me further was that even after 8 years in existence, the biodiesel tax credit is still largely a mystery to many congressmen.

Without much resistance, the ethanol industry just lost their tax credit (as did the biodiesel industry, but we want ours back).  The ethanol industry got their tax credit back in the Carter administration, over 30 years ago.  The petroleum industry’s tax credits are largely permanent, which they’ve enjoyed for over 80 years.  Yet the biodiesel tax credit is treated as if it’s a tired subject.

The biodiesel industry is still fairly young, and needs the support of the tax credit to be able to compete with the heavily subsidized petroleum industry.  The tax credit for 2012 would be fairly sizable, about 1 billion dollars.  However, the petroleum industry gets tax credits for refining roughly 60 billion gallons of diesel fuel in the US.  So our portion of this offset is fairly small at this point.

That said, every gallon of biodiesel produced in this country means domestic jobs, domestic economics, and domestic fuel that is produced here rather than in a foreign country in the middle east where many do not like Americans.  To me, that’s three very good reasons to support biodiesel with a tax credit.  Want to see what happens with and without the tax credit?

Impact of Biodiesel Tax Incentive

Impact of Biodiesel Tax Incentive

There are 5 biodiesel plants in North Carolina; 4 of us were in DC this week to represent the biodiesel industry and press our issues to our congressmen.  This is about jobs.  This is about energy security.  This is about domestic economics.  The last time Congress allowed the biodiesel tax incentive to expire – in 2010 – dozens of plants closed and thousands of people lost jobs as the industry’s production plummeted to about 315 million gallons. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress (Senate bill S.1277 and House bill H.R.2238) to extend the biodiesel tax incentive for three years.

If you think like we do, then please contact your representative and tell them to support these bills for the biodiesel tax credit.  Use this site to enter your address and get your representatives and senators for your location:

http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

 

The Global Warming Argument Doesn’t Matter – at least to me…

I don’t know about you, but I am getting really tired of hearing about whether global warming is real or not.  Some scientist have “absolute proof” that it is real and is going to kill our planet, others have “undeniable proof” that it is a hoax.

To me, unless you’ve actually been to the South Pole and taken ice core samples to examine air bubbles for CO2 and O2 level trends, I don’t think you have a clue what you’re talking about.  Even then, what does that really show?  How can we possibly take into account all the geological, astronomical, and biological impacts that have occurred over eons of time and make a definitive statement that we know for sure there is or is not any anthropomorphic harm being done to the atmosphere?

In relative terms, we as humans have only been this planet a relatively short time, and the industrial period is just a blink in the geologic time span of the earth.  To presume that we can affirmatively say whether or not we’re actually harming it by burning fossil fuels, wood, or elephant turds is a bit presumptuous to me.   What’s to say that we’re not seeing a climatic change that’s part of a repeatable pattern that’s been happening over millenia?

So what can we measure?  We can see and measure a difference in air pollution, or smog.  Anybody who’s been to Los Angeles or a similar city can see the effect that air pollution has.  Making changes to fuel burning technologies or even changing fuels (to things like biodiesel, for instance…) can make significant reductions in smog that can dramatically benefit the local environment in a fairly short period of time.  These kinds of changes make sense to me.

Still, as I’ve said before, the whole debate about global warming seems a bit off center to me.  People treat it as if it’s a religion, and you have to be on one side or the other.  Pascal, the famous French mathematician, made a wager relating to religion that a rational person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.  We see it similarly with global warming.   If we behave as if global warming is real (and act rationally and prudently about how to mitigate it), the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.

The risks are that we are foolish.  We expend resources and money on an issue that doesn’t matter, harm businesses with onerous and irrational regulatory burdens, and put 1st world countries at a disadvantage to developing countries that do not honor these policies.  Indeed.  These are foolish.  There needs to be some limits and parameters applied to how to mitigate global warming, if it exists at all.

The benefits are many.  We create jobs and new economies for the renewable fuel, conservation, and sustainability markets (more on that overused word “sustainable” later), we create new technologies and tools to better utilize available resources, we learn how to optimize local economies and make global transportation and logistics more efficient,  we reduce smog and harmful pollutants that kill humans, animals, and vegetation, and we reserve strategic petroleum resources for use as building blocks for complex chemical products such as plastics, medicines, and lubricants (rather than simply burning it like a moron).

The fact is petroleum is here to stay.  It’s not going away.  We NEED it.  We just shouldn’t be burning it haphazardly without any sort of plan on what to do when it goes it away.  And it will go away, at some point in the future (some say sooner than later, but that’s another debate).  It takes too long for nature to make it, and we’re going through it way too fast by burning it.   Using it as a feedstock for more beneficial component and chemical products makes much more sense for a strategic resource that is this hard to replace.

This is where the “sustainable” idea comes in.  I hate that word.  It’s been overused almost as much as “green” and “socially responsible”, but the fact is, it’s a damn good word to describe the concept.   We as humans are crowding the planet, and consuming resources at a rate that’s never been seen before on this planet (I think, anyway…  Maybe the dinosaurs ate themselves to extinction?).  Finding resources that we can grow over and over again each year, or on a continual basis, allows us as humans to continue to consume at the rate we are and not run out of natural resources.  We’re not there yet.  But we’re making more advances in this field than ever before, and partly because of the scary concepts of things like global warming.

The trick, as always, is to find a way to make these advances with the minimum cost and impact on society.  Right now, we’re caught up in the technicalities of the argument, and missing the bigger picture, in my opinion.

 

Fixing Old Problems

This weekend we re-plumbed the entire boiler loop for our plant. The initial installation was done by a group of people (including employees) that really didn’t know what they were doing. The original installation looked very much like a Rube Goldberg design, and while it did actually work (meaning it got hot water to the tanks to heat other liquids), it lacked sufficient heat transfer and caused premature pump failures. The boiler installation, except for the original boiler itself and the stack, has almost been completely redone. It has a new (properly sized) pump, a new properly sized fuel pump, new water supply and return piping that is the factory recommended sizing (2″), and in the factory recommended “loop” configuration instead of a manifold type configuration which was very inefficient and caused pressure and flow problems.

So far, we’re seeing quicker times to get the loop up to temperature, and much better heat transfer to the tanks. It was expensive to do, but our other options were less appealing: add another or bigger boiler, or use electric heating elements to add additional heat.

Since we use our own biodiesel in our boiler, the emissions from it are pretty clean, and the improved efficiency should not only save us money on fuel, but grant us the gains in heating efficiency we’ve needed for quite a while.

Using Baking Soda Blaster to Safely Clean Tanks

Back in 2008 when we were building the plant, a former employee bought a soda blaster for the plant to use to clean the outside and inside of some used carbon steel and stainless steel tanks.   The idea behind the purchase was that some of the tanks had unknown contents in them that were presumed non-toxic but not verified.  We needed to clean the inside and the outside of the tanks, and using baking soda instead of sand created an environmentally safe residue that could simply be discarded.

While the system worked, we no longer need it.  The blaster is made by a company called Soda Blaster (http://www.sodablastsystems.com) out of Texas.   They advertise it can be used to clean boat hulls safely, clean buildings and decking, etc.  Whatever you would use a sand blaster for but is not as abrasive as sand and want a non-toxic residue, this unit is designed for those tasks.

So ours is up for sale.  We purchased it and a Sullivan Air G1850 gasoline powered compress for around $18,000.00 in 2008.  I’d like to sell our unit (SB-200) with the compressor and 50′ of high pressure hose for $8,000.00.  You arrange freight (we will load onto truck with forklift) or local pickup only, we cannot deliver.

Interested?  Contact us on our contact page (http://www.trianglebiofuels.com/contact.php) or call us at 866-244-0555.

 

 

Raleigh CAT Buses use biodiesel?

It’s been a familiar sight for me for 20 years.  Raleigh CAT (Capital Area Transit) buses running around town with billowing black exhaust smoke out as they ride down the road.  More than once in the last few years, I remember thinking “if they just used biodiesel, they wouldn’t smoke so badly.”

Well, as it turns out, they do.  Although I haven’t confirmed with the city yet what blend they use (I hear B20, but got recent information that it is B5), they clearly need to be using a higher blend!  The picture shown here is not as clear as it could be, but it was obviously spewing out raw diesel smoke that could be greatly reduced by using  a biodiesel blend.  Now, to be fair, it’s possible that this picture shows a bus that isn’t running biodiesel at all.

We’ve seen older trucks come to fill up at the plant that are running petroleum diesel fuel and fill up on B20 for the first time, only to see the engine noise reduced and smoke down to the point where it is almost nonexistent.   We know it works.  We only hope Raleigh continues to use biodiesel in it’s fleet in order to reduce the amount of diesel exhaust it pours into the city air.

We supply B20 biodiesel to several municipalities in North Carolina, including city trucks and fire department vehicles.  So far we’ve had very positive feedback from all our customers regarding the use of our biodiesel blends in existing municipal fleets.

 

The Ugliest Tank in Biodiesel

If there was a contest for the ugliest processing tank in the biodiesel industry, I think we would win. This tank, which was purchased by a former business partner in 2008, has sat unused for way too long. We finally found a use for it as an esterification pre-treatment tank for incoming high FFA feedstock.

The price of WVO feedstock has increased dramatically and hasn’t fallen back off by much, so we’ve taken to buying lower quality feedstock (or soy, which can be cheaper in some cases, see my other blog article about that). High FFA feedstock needs to be cleaned up and esterified in order to convert it into biodiesel. This tank was originally an all stainless steel (316) conical tank. We added a water jacket and spray foam insulation (and then painted it black to make it even uglier) and added a stainless pump, stainless steel plumbing, and fittings to do high FFA WVO esterification and settling. Fortunately, many of the fittings and valves had been purchased previously and were just sitting around in storage at the plant.

We’ve run through some test runs with the tank and so far it seems to work very well. We will run large scale batches beginning next week to see how well it works.  I’ll post more information about esterification pre-treatment and how it works in large scale batches for biodiesel feedstock in the coming weeks.  We’ve done smaller batches in the past (1,000 gals) and it works very well at that scale.  We hope to speed up the process by using larger tanks and pumps to perform the operation a truckload at a time.

Stay tuned…

Biodiesel Defies Modern Physics

That was a phrase that a plant engineer told me when he was helping me assemble our biodiesel plant.  I thought I understood what he meant at the time, but now I have a much, much deeper understanding.

Biodiesel is an amazing liquid.  Pure, finished biodiesel is non-toxic, biodegradable, and non-flammable, yet it will combust like diesel fuel.   You can drink it (although I certainly do not recommend it), you can spill it on your lawn (I did, but accidentally; again, don’t do this) with no harmful effects, but it will not light with a match.   It’s a very stable, safe liquid.  Yet it will dissolve rubber compounds easily, destroy asphalt very quickly, degrade concrete, and react with certain metals.  How is it you can drink this stuff, but it will destroy asphalt in a matter of minutes?!

But that’s not even what I’m talking about when I say it defies physics.  When plumbing up our plant, we used a number of different pipe sizes, some in stainless steel, some in carbon steel.  In most cases we used threaded pipe sealed with pipe tape.  We quickly learned that it wasn’t sufficient to use the regular pipe tape you find a Lowe’s hardware.  Even now, we have some pipe assemblies that were sealed with plumber’s paste AND military grade Teflon pipe tape and they still have a small leak when under pressure.

I can hear you saying it now, “Well dummy, just tighten the connection”, or “You just didn’t do it right.  Put more (or less) tape”.  I’ve heard all that.  Unless you actually RUN a biodiesel plant, it’s probably hard to believe what I’m saying.   In fact, about the ONLY thing that really seals pipe connections is to go back and put a weld around each pipe connection.  That seems to do the trick.

We’ve even seen biodiesel creep through tank patches where a 1/4″ steel plate was welded to a tank.  I presume because biodiesel has such a high lubricity, that it can just “slide” through cracks and pin holes that other liquids are not able to penetrate.  It definitely seems to be more prevalent with stainless steel fittings than black steel, and high temperature and pressure exacerbate it by a good margin.  On the wash side of our plant where we have black pipe instead of stainless, it seems to occur less.  The stainless steel connections shown in this picture below are a good example of stainless steel threaded connections that run hot biodiesel through at pressure.  We regularly clean these connections down, but they continue to seep ever so slightly.  Tightening does not help, and in some cases we’ve redone the connections completely, to no avail.

 

I’m betting there actually is a perfectly good scientific explanation for why this liquid behaves this way.  It’s probably not even that unique.  But it makes for a better headline to make biodiesel sound more mysterious (hey, I’m learning from our mainstream media).

So if you’re building a plant, or even a small reactor for yourself, do take care to make sure all your steel pipe connections are very tight and well sealed.  They will leak, eventually.

In the mean time, we have regular cleanups to do and some long term pipe welding projects ahead…

 

Boiler Problems

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve cursed at our boiler, I’d have enough money to buy a new one.

But actually, the boiler is fine. It’s a Columbia Waste Oil Boiler that we use to burn biodiesel to generate process heat. The folks at Columbia Boiler are fine group and I would recommend them to anyone.

What sucks in our case is actually our boiler room and installation. Poorly designed, installed by amateurs and assisted by people (former employees and contractors) who claimed to know what they were doing and clearly did not, our boiler room is too small, the stack is (was) installed properly, the piping is too small, and the distribution piping and manifold make our setup look like a Rube Goldberg special edition boiler. It’s a mess. I’m embarrassed when anyone comes in to look at it.

So, over the last couple of years, we’ve been slowly fixing, upgrading, and replacing undersized pumps, incorrect pressure relief valves, incorrectly calculated air inlets, etc. You name it. We’ve most recently insulated the stack, which is (mostly) installed correctly for proper draft and flue temperature now. The excess heat in the (too small) boiler room was causing premature motor failure on the pumps (even when the undersized ones were replaced). If I get a solid week where nothing goes wrong with it I consider it lucky.

So, a word to the wise when building a plant. Size your boiler properly, and more important, size your boiler room properly and get a professional company (with references) to install it. Otherwise it will continue to bite you in the rear end for years to come.

Politics Have No Place in Biodiesel

Every once in a while, I run across an article or an interview where I hear some biodiesel producer, usually dressed for anything but working in a biodiesel plant, claiming “The Republicans” are hurting renewable energy, or supporting “Big Oil”, or whatever.  The latest article I read claims that the Republicans are the cause for high fuel prices and biodiesel feedstock prices.   This is nonsense, and really only serves to create a bigger division in our industry.  We are too small to be a divided industry.  We as an industry can barely produce enough biodiesel to even be on the radar of the liquid fuels industry.  Ethanol is much more organized, and produces vastly larger quantities of fuel annually compared to biodiesel.  We need more plants, producing more fuel, and tighter integration with the petroleum industry.  Like it or not (and I didn’t for a long time), we are tied to the petroleum industry and biodiesel will be sold as a blended fuel.   Maybe one day you will be able to find retail B100 at all fuel pumps, but not today.  If we are going to get our fuel sold in commercial quantities, it will be through the existing petroleum infrastructure.  Deal with it.

I’m also sick of hearing conservatives tell me that renewable fuels are for kooks and tree huggers, and that the economics don’t work without subsidies.  I beg to differ.  The petroleum industry gets $5 billion a year in subsidies.  Fine.  Take theirs away too, and I’ll be able to compete just fine, thank you.

I am registered as and tend to vote Republican, but that really has almost nothing to do with what I do for a living.   I do not contribute to the campaign of any politician in either party.   I’m also an environmentalist.  I’m also an entrepreneur and see renewable fuels as a budding new market.  I think that it only makes sense to produce fuels locally from waste products or margin crops, and then sell and consume them locally.  That reduces resource waste, reduces logistics, and improves margins.  It also reduces the amount of money we send to people in parts of the world that hate us and want to do us harm.   No matter which side of the political fence you are on, how can that be bad?

I don’t see any fit for political issues in biodiesel.  I see economic issues, environmental issues, and cultural issues in biodiesel, but not political issues.   Pointing fingers at the opposing political party and screaming out loud on issues related to biodiesel just makes our industry look petty, unprofessional, and divided.  Divided industries will not last very long.   Get rid of the politics, and act like a business.   Not only will your customers notice, so will other biodiesel plants and your vendors.  Who knows, it could actually grow your business.