Enzymatic Biodiesel

We have been benchtop testing with enzymatic biodiesel, evaluating it’s performance with different feedstocks and mixture ratios to see what works best.  So far, I’m impressed with the results and it appears to be far easier to use than I originally understood.

We have begun investigating what the upfit costs would be to scale up for production, but the ROI looks promising.   Not only would we be able to use a wider range of feedstocks, but the pre-treatment time is cut dramatically, input chemicals are cut dramatically, and our production yields look like they might double.  All very promising.

I’ve been down this road before, skipping down what looks to be a yellow brick road and then have a bunch of flying monkeys swoop down and steal my favorite dog.   So, we proceed cautiously, but overall we are excited about the prospect of using a new technology that could potentially increase yields and profit.


Autopsy of the NC Biofuels Center

Almost a year old now,  I recently ran across an article that talked about the GOP’s funding retraction for the NC Biofuels Center and how it was politically motivated.   The article can be read in full at http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060003013.  I don’t know much about eenews.net, but the article reads very bent towards the political left, and didn’t really have any weigh in from the Republicans or any real mention of mitigating factors that may have contributed to the Center’s demise.

From a North Carolina biodiesel producer’s perspective, I have a few thoughts on the matter.   I met with the leadership of the Biofuels Center many times.  They came and visited my plant in 2011.   There are 5 biodiesel plants in North Carolina, and that year was the year we became the largest producer in the state.  I liked them instantly as they were very respectful and friendly.   They were not, however, very well educated on biodiesel or how it is produced.  I expected more I guess, being they were from the “Biofuels Center”.   I got multiple questions about fermentation, distillation, or similar ethanol type biofuel questions which had no application in my plant.  They were eager to learn, but I felt they should have come more prepared (and apparently I wasn’t the first biodiesel plant they had visited that week).

And that summed up in a nutshell the focus of the Biofuels Center (BC):  They were focused almost entirely on ethanol and ethanol based crop research.  The goal set by North Carolina was lofty:  “By 2017, 10 percent of liquid fuels sold in North Carolina will come from biofuels grown and produced within the State.”   Almost none of that, apparently, was envisioned as coming from the five biodiesel plants that already existed in North Carolina.   Logistically that made some sense, in that they needed at least a few very large biofuels plants in NC to be able to meet such a lofty goal as was set.  I know at least 3 of the 5 biodiesel plants (including TBI) would have happily accepted ANY incentives to expand our plants to meet the goal.  But the BC wanted ethanol.

Triangle Biofuels never got any financial support from the Biofuels Center, even though we contacted them and applied several times.  Where they did provide financial support, grants, or research assistance is well documented, but as far as I know there were no major allocation of funds ($250,000 to Blue Ridge Biofuels is the largest and only real grant I’m aware of) provided to any of the existing biodiesel plants for expansion to help meet the 10% goal set by the State.   To be fair, the $250,000 award to Blue Ridge is a sizable award by most biodiesel plant measures, but comparatively it was too small.  Much of the awards went to municipalities or research programs for university programs.   Their failures are also well documented, such as “Clean Burn” (see featured image above) in Raeford, NC, which received millions in funding and incentives but went bankrupt before it ever produced any ethanol.  Needless to say, it’s 2015 and we will come nowhere close to meeting that goal in 2017.  Most likely, it never really had a chance to begin with.

Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels said this in the article:  “Looking back on the center, Estill said that its leaders would sometimes ‘impose petroleum thinking on the biofuels endeavor.’ In other words, the center aimed for big projects that require massive quantities of feedstock.”  Lyle and I often don’t see eye to eye, but I respect his expertise and passion for biodiesel as a fuel, and his perspective on this issue is dead on in my opinion.  He too wanted to see the smaller plants receive funding to help them grow, and possibly spark additional plants into production.  That, of course, never happened.

The idea of the Biofuels Center was a fantastic one; it was noble, and it was timely.  The people that worked there were ambitious, talented, and passionate.  Their execution however, was flawed and misguided.

Factor in the budget constraints that most states were operating under, the lack of any significant substantive accomplishments by the Biofuels Center towards the goal set for 2017, the low ROI on funds allocated to the center, and it isn’t difficult to understand the Legislature’s decision to stop funding the center.


5 Things to Know About Biodiesel

Biodiesel is not Vegetable Oil

This may be the most common mistake I still hear after 10 years making biodiesel from vegetable oil using transesterification.  Transesterification is the fancy name for the chemical process used to chemically break a triglyceride molecule down and turn it into a methyl-ester (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerol.   In 2015, I still have conversations where someone tells me they used to “make biodiesel” by mixing used cooking oil and gasoline and pouring it in their diesel truck.  Not only is that concoction NOT biodiesel, it’s not good for your engine, or even your fuel tank.  It WILL ruin your car or truck.  Don’t do it.

Biodiesel is Not Made from Corn

Nope, it’s not.  That’s Ethanol.  Unless you mean corn oil, but even that isn’t used very much in the biodiesel industry.  Ethanol is usually made from starches or sugar, which are broken down with enzymes, yeast, and fermentation into ethyl alcohol.  Biodiesel is ALWAYS made from fats, any fat, but not from sugar or starches like corn.   Common oils used commercially for producing biodiesel are soybean, canola, palm, jatropha, and used cooking oil.

Biodiesel Will Not Ruin Your Engine

Really, it won’t.  Well, maybe, it depends…  It got more complicated around 2009 with the EPA’s ruling to require engine manufacturers to use mechanical and urea based systems to reduce harmful emissions in diesel engines.   These changes, specifically DPF (diesel particulate filters) and urea additive systems can cause compatibility problems with high concentrations of biodiesel (above B20).   All diesel cars and trucks can at least handle blends of 5% biodiesel (B5) or less.   Most cars and trucks before 2007 are usually fine for blends up to B100, but after that you should check with your manufacturer to find out if your diesel car or truck can handle biodiesel blends above B5.

Biodiesel is Inexpensive

Biodiesel is usually cheaper than diesel fuel.   The government instituted a biodiesel tax credit for producers starting in 2004 to help make biodiesel more cost competitive with diesel fuel (which has subsidies already built in the tax code).   Because biodiesel is usually cheaper, and often because it is mandated for blending, petroleum companies regularly buy biodiesel in bulk for blending with regular diesel fuel in order to improve profits and take advantage of some of the beneficial properties of biodiesel in their fuel (like increased cetane and lubricity).  In fact, many times that diesel you are buying at the truck stop or convenience store is already a B5 or less blend, it just isn’t labeled as such.

You Don’t Have To Commit

Biodiesel is a certified fuel by the EPA and the ASTM.  That means that when used properly, it is compatible with any modern engine that is on the road today.  It also means you can use B20 biodiesel this week, then next week fill up with regular diesel, and next month use B5 biodiesel, and so on.   You can be a dedicated biodiesel enthusiast, or you can be a philanderer and switch back and forth as often as you wish.  It’s your choice.  Your engine won’t care.  Really.

That’s five things.  Want to know more?  Check out our Frequently Asked Questions or Why Biodiesel pages

Senate Urges EPA to Set RFS Volumes

32 Senators Sent a Letter to EPA on Biodiesel Volumes: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) led a letter sent Monday urging EPA to quickly approve strong biodiesel volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Yes, you read that right.  The US EPA still hasn’t set the volume requirements for the Renewable Fuel Standard for last year.  Last year.

Pointing to an industry survey, lawmakers said that nearly 80 percent of U.S. biodiesel producers had scaled back production last year, and that about 60 percent quit production altogether.

Additionally, about 66 percent of biodiesel producers said they have already reduced or anticipate reducing their workforce.

The EPA has said it expects to set the standards for 2014 and 2015 some time this year.

The senators wrote that the EPA delays in implementing the RFS have created “tremendous uncertainty and hardship for the U.S. biodiesel industry and its thousands of employees. Plants have reduced production and some have been forced to shut down, resulting in layoffs and lost economic productivity … We urge you to get biodiesel back on schedule under the statutorily prescribed Renewable Volume Obligations (RVO) process and quickly issue volumes for 2014 at the actual 2014 production numbers. We also hope you move forward on the 2015 and 2016 biodiesel volumes in a timely manner.”

Back In Production

TBI was idle for 2 months at the end of 2014 due to lack of the biodiesel tax credit and a lack of guidance from the EPA on the RFS volumes for biodiesel.  With the tax credit retroactively renewed for 2014, we are back in production for 2015.

We are once again producing SME and FAME biodiesel for bulk blenders, fleets, and retail sales in blends of B99 or B20.  Other custom blends are available upon request.

We thank you for your continued support of Triangle Biofuels and look forward to a productive year in 2015.


TBI Featured in Travel Channel TV Show “Off Limits”

Triangle Biofuels Industries (Wilson, NC), the largest biodiesel plant in North Carolina, was featured in the July 29th airing of “Off Limits” with Don Wildman. The segment features the oil collection process, biodiesel production, and dispensing of biodiesel made from used cooking oil.  Also featured is an excellent animation about the biodiesel reaction process which shows how vegetable oil is turned into biodiesel and glycerin, and how the finished biofuel is processed.


A Firefighter’s Guide to Biodiesel

After numerous articles in the media about small (and sometimes large) fires at biodiesel plants, most of the articles I read end up saying something about how the fire department was ill-prepared or unsure about what chemicals were in the plant and whether they were hazardous.  In some cases, they even questioned whether the biodiesel itself was hazardous.   I’m not a firefighting expert, nor a chemist, but I’m going to attempt to explain in layman’s terms what can be found at the typical biodiesel plant and a little bit about each.

  1. Vegetable Oil – Health:1, Fire:1, Reactivity:1. Any type oil, soybean, canola, waste vegetable.  These oils are non-hazardous, non-toxic, and non-flammable.  Flash point is well over 450°F.   Most biodiesel plants will store vegetable oil in bulk tanks, but it may also be found in 300 gal IBC totes.  Treat as oil fire.   Foam, dry chemical, CO2, or water if necessary.  Water on oil fires is a last resort, as it tends to spread the oil (and thus the fire), and in some cases can actually flash to steam and create a more dangerous situation.  Potential fire sources in biodiesel plants are caused by using electric heating elements directly exposed to vegetable oil with lack of stirring or overheating.
  2. Biodiesel – Health:1, Fire:1, Reactivity:1. Chemical name Mono-Alkyl Ester.  Non-hazardous, non-toxic, and non-flammable.  CAS Number 67784-80-9.  Flash point typically over 300°F.   Treat as oil fire.   Foam, dry chemical, CO2, or water if necessary.  Use water spray, fog or foam. Do not use water jet.  Water on oil fires is a last resort, as it tends to spread the oil (and thus the fire), and in some cases can actually flash to steam and create a more dangerous situation.  Disbursement into ravines or water sources can be immediately threatening to wildlife in some cases (oil film on water surface, oxygen reducer), but researchers at the University of Idaho noted that after leaving biodiesel in an aqueous solution for twenty-eight days, ninety-five percent of biodiesel was gone—completely degraded.   Potential fire sources in biodiesel plants are caused by using electric heating elements directly exposed to biodiesel with lack of stirring or overheating.  In certain cases (in process biodiesel production) methanol may be added to the biodiesel, reducing the flash point and making a hazardous material.
  3. Glycerin –  Health:1, Fire:1, Reactivity:0. Chemical name propane-1,2,3-triol.  CAS Number: 8043-29-6.  Pure glycerin is a non-flammable and non-hazardous material.  Depending upon the feestock and purity, it can contain methanol, lipids (vegetable oil), and water.  In these cases the material may be considered slightly hazardous and flammable.  It is slightly hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, permeator over long contact duration), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation.  Flash point for pure glycerin is 320°F, but methylated glycerin can be much lower.   Most biodiesel plans will have both raw (with methanol) and finished (pure or near pure) glycerin.  All but refined glycerin will have a brownish to dark black color and syrup like viscosity.   It may be stored in barrels, 300 gallon IBC totes, or in bulk tanks.   Treat as oil fire.   Foam, dry chemical, CO2, or water if necessary.  Use water spray, fog or foam. Do not use water jet.  Glycerin is heavier than water and runoff into ditches, streams, and ponds may not be immediately visible because the material may be on the bottom.
  4. Methanol Health:3, Fire:3, Reactivity:1.  Chemical name: Methyl Alcohol.  CAS Number: 67-56-1.   Methanol is highly flammable, toxic, and hazardous.  It burns with a light blue flame, almost invisible during daylight.   Flash point is 54°F.  Most biodiesel plants will have pure methanol.  It may be stored in barrels, 300 IBC gallon totes, or bulk tanks.  Treat as oil fire.   Foam, dry chemical, CO2, or water if necessary.  Use water spray, fog or foam. Do not use water jet.  All pumps and motors involved in production for methanol related materials should be explosion proof.
  5. Sodium Methoxide or Sodium Methylate –  Health:3, Fire:3, Reactivity:3.  CAS Number: 124-41-4.   Definitely the most dangerous material at a biodiesel plant.  Some biodiesel plants may use Potassium Methylate in addition or instead (treat similarly).  This material will be in liquid form, and has a clear, viscous appearance.  Flash point is 91°F.  Treat as oil fire.   Foam, dry chemical, CO2, or water if necessary.  Use water spray, fog or foam. Do not use water jet.   Highly flammable and autoignition possible in presence of moisture. Flammable in presence of open flames and sparks, or heat.   Most small to medium sized biodiesel plants have this in small quantities, usually stored in drums or 300 gal IBC totes.  Some larger plants will store this in bulk tanks, which are usually stainless steel.  This material is highly reactive, caustic, hazardous and toxic.  Avoid contact with skin, inhalation, and exposure to eyes.  Do not flush caustic residues to sewer. Residues from spills can be diluted with water, neutralized with diluted acid such as acetic and hydrochloric. Absorb neutralized caustic residues on clay, sand, vermiculite or other absorbent material and place in a chemical waste container for disposal.
  6. Sodium HydroxideHealth:3, Fire:1, Reactivity:2.  CAS number: 1310−73−2 100.  Some biodiesel plants may use Potassium Hydroxide in addition or instead (treat similarly).  Corrosive, causes severe burns.  This is a corrosive solid that has a physical appearance of white flakes or white granules.  It is highly toxic and hazardous.  It is commonly stored in drums and 55 lb plastic bags (like potting soil).  Most small to medium sized plants will have 2,000 to 10,000 lbs on hand at a time. Avoid contact with skin, inhalation, and exposure to eyes.   Sodium hydroxide is slightly toxic in the aquatic environment. The toxic effect on aquatic organism is due pH increasing.  It is soluble in water and degrades quickly.  Not considered a fire hazard; however, for large fire use powder, foam extinguishing agents or carbon dioxide. Avoid water use if possible. Adding water to caustic solution generates large amounts of heat and steam! Do not flush caustic residues to sewer. Residues from spills can be diluted with water, neutralized with diluted acid such as acetic and hydrochloric. Absorb neutralized caustic residues on clay, sand, vermiculite or other absorbent material and place in a chemical waste container for disposal.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of materials found at biodiesel plants, it contains the primary components that nearly every biodiesel plant in the Unites States uses on a daily basis.  Our plant is located in the city of Wilson, NC and we regularly have visits and familiarization drills with the firefighters in the town to acquaint them with the materials we use in our plant, and where they are stored.  These drills become invaluable when the need arises in order to minimize the potential danger to the firefighters and the community should disaster strike.

Municipal Used Cooking Oil Curbside Collection Programs

This time of year we always see a surge in cities and counties contacting us to collect or receive their used cooking oil.   Many people these days deep fry their turkey for Thanksgiving.  It’s a quick, tasty way to cook a large turkey.   I’ll leave it to the culinary experts to tell you how to best fry and serve the turkey on this day, but I want to share a few tips and ideas about the grease that comes from this collective holiday ritual.

Turkey Fryer

Deep Frying a Turkey

It started for us about 3 years ago.  We had calls from several cities a few months before Thanksgiving asking us if we would accept their cooking oil.   We said yes.  For some municipalities, it even turned into a curbside collection program where the city would pickup your grease (in sealed containers) from your house during the normal trash pickup.   We started placing special collection bins at municipal and county waste collection locations.   Now, picking up used cooking oil from a government entity isn’t a simple and trivial process.  Most of them want a contract, which clearly states that we have insurance and other commitments to ensure that we will do what we say we’ll do, and transfer the liability to someone else if something bad happens.  That’s just the nature of today’s society and working with any government entity.

You will see these programs labeled as “Municipal Curbside Grease Collection Programs” or “WVO Recycling Programs”.  WVO (waste vegetable oil) and UCO (used cooking oil) can be used interchangeably and are often just stated as “grease” or “used oil”.   Many times you will see WVO collected at the city or county hazardous waste facility, even though technically WVO is not hazardous waste (it is food, after all).  Mostly they are put at hazmat collection sites because they don’t have anywhere else suitable to contain it, and those sites are used to handling liquids that can be a bit messy.

But why do these cities and counties want to sell me their grease?  It doesn’t pay that much.  In fact, the money we pay for the grease probably barely pays to offset the fuel and labor it takes to pick the oil up and transport it back to the recycling site  (although we do sell biodiesel back at a discount to some which further enhances the savings).


FOG in a Sewer Pipe

No, the real reason is FOG.  Not the London type, it stands for Fats, Oils, and Greases.   It’s nasty stuff.  It happens when people pour grease down their drains or in the sewer.  Fats, oils and greases that are liquids at high temperatures cool and become solids. When they cool, it clogs up the drains or sewers, and creates backup issues that can create huge financial problems for people and businesses when their business or street floods with water and sewer.   It’s nasty, it’s costly, and it’s a potential health concern.

There’s a special kind of truck, maybe you’ve seen them, called a “Jetter” that’s used to clean up this mess.  These highly specialized trucks have a pumping system similar to a fire truck that uses very high pressure hot water to clear out the drain.  In some cases, actually sucking the muck out into another tank so it can be dumped at a proper waste handling facility that is designed to process fats and oils.    It’s a nasty job worthy of a “Dirty Jobs” episode all by itself (in fact, they did a sewer clean out episode, I think).

So really, the entire “UCO Recycling program” is to prevent FOG.  It saves labor, time, and money, and it prevents very costly and potentially catastrophic sewer backups.  Plus, the city or county is improving their recycling program and benefits by looking “green”.  In some cases they actually are “green” because the biodiesel we produce from those oils is sold back to that group as biodiesel, which is used in their trucks and buses to reduce diesel exhaust emissions.

So in effect, the turkey you fry this Thanksgiving not only tastes good, it’s potentially helping to provide cleaner air for the city and county you live in.  That’s something to be pretty thankful for indeed.

For more information about turkey frying and what to do with the grease after, we like the fact sheet provided by the Hampton Roads, VA FOG education committee.  See it here:  http://www.fatfreedrains.com/downloads/factsheet_TurkeyFrying09.pdf


A Jetter Truck Cleans Out Sewers

Here’s how to recycle your cooking grease after frying:
  • After frying your turkey (or whatever), cover the cooker with the lid and allow it to cool for several hours, or until the temperature is at least below 110°F.
  • If possible, find the original container the oil came in. These containers are usually plastic with a screw on top and are perfect for storing oil. Otherwise, find a suitable container that can hold the oil in an airtight and spill proof manner.
  • Using a funnel, pour the oil into the container, getting as much as possible from the fryer into the container. Seal the container with the lid, and if necessary, use electrical tape or masking tape around the lid to ensure the lid will not come off accidentally. IMPORTANT: Label the container as “Used Cooking Oil” on several sides in permanent marker.
  • With paper towels, wipe the inside of the fryer to get any residual oil and fryer bits, and wipe off any excess around the fryer oil container that may have spilled during transfer. Discard the paper towels in your trash. Some people burn them in the fireplace as kindling, but we don’t necessarily recommend that because it’s messy and can create an oily smoke that is not healthy to breathe.
  • If your city has a curbside collection program, you may need to contact them in advance and tell them you have grease to pick up. Some cities have a minimum amount to pickup, so ask. Otherwise, place at your curbside where it will be seen during your normal trash or recycling pickup.
  • If you don’t have curbside pickup, simply take it to your city or county recycling or hazardous waste facility for recycling there. You can also drop it off at our facility in Wilson if that’s convenient (see our contact page on our website for a map).

Don’t throw that grease away! It can be recycled and used to help make diesel fumes less toxic to our air!

Biodiesel Myth #9 – Biodiesel Will Gel Up My Tank or My Engine

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #9 – Biodiesel Will Gel Up My Tank or My Engine in Winter

Most likely, no.  While it’s true the biodiesel has a higher gel point than diesel fuel, the fact is that both petroleum diesel and biodiesel will gel if it gets cold enough.   If it’s not very cold, biodiesel will not gel up at all.

Biodiesel responds to anti-gel treatments in much the same manner as petroleum diesel.  By adding compounds that inhibit wax formations to accumulate, the fuel in effect remains liquid instead of gelling (or waxing) as the temperature decreases.

The temperature at which untreated biodiesel gels is variable, just like it is with untreated petroleum diesel.  The common temperature at which most people will say untreated diesel will begin to gel is 12°F.   The common temperature at which most people agree biodiesel will begin to gel, although it’s largely based upon feedstock so we’re going to assume soy biodiesel, is 30°F.   Adding anti-gel compounds significantly lowers that temperature in both fuels.

Cold Flow Additives Help Any Fuel Blend in Winter

Further, in winter time, diesel fuel not only has anti-gel additives in it, it usually is mixed with #1 Diesel (kerosene) in colder climates.  Kerosene is a light fuel oil, which has a gel point of -30°F.  Adding it in a 1/20 ratio to biodiesel or a biodiesel blend will further winterize your fuel.   However, for most temperate climates, it’s not necessary.  Regular B20 biodiesel (with #2 winter diesel) will work just fine down to about  -5°F.   Always make sure your diesel (and biodiesel) fuel has been winterized in cold weather months, and it wouldn’t hurt to add it yourself just to be sure.  It beats being stranded on the side of the road.

What do you do if the fuel has already gelled in your tank?

You wake up on the morning to go to work and your vehicle will not start.  Your fuel has gelled in the tank overnight.  What do you do?   The time proven remedy is to add a gallon of kerosene for each 10 to 20 gallons of fuel to the tank, then allow it to sit long enough for the kerosene to diffuse into the fuel.  In weather below -20 degrees F, one gallon of kerosene for 10 gallons of fuel will keep things moving, but fuel economy will be reduced because kerosene has a lower BTU value per gallon than #2 diesel fuel.   Block heaters and tank heaters are also added in severe climates to help ensure fuel is flowing.    Store your vehicle in a garage if possible.

For more information, visit the NBB website at http://www.biodiesel.org/pdf_files/fuelfactsheets/COLD_BIOGenrlFactShtNOSOY.pdf.