Making biodiesel

Dec. 1, 2006
SOME TANK truck fleets haul biodiesel, and others fuel their vehicles with biodiesel blends. The owners of Grammer Industries, an Indiana-based tank truck

SOME TANK truck fleets haul biodiesel, and others fuel their vehicles with biodiesel blends. The owners of Grammer Industries, an Indiana-based tank truck carrier, went a step further and built their own biodiesel plant.

Operating under the name Integrity Biofuels, the Morristown, Indiana, plant held its grand opening at the beginning of August. Reportedly, this is the first biodiesel plant to come on line in Indiana, and it can produce more than 10,000 gallons of fuel a day.

“We expect to double production before the end of this year, and we should double it again by June 2007,” says John Whittington, who started Integrity Biofuels with his father, Charles “Shorty” Whittington. “We're very optimistic about the future for biodiesel in this area and throughout the United States. We built the plant because we saw a market opportunity. This is a business with great potential.

“We're running biodiesel in several of our tractors at Grammer Industries, and we'd like to convert our whole fleet at some point. The drivers who operate the trucks fueled with biodiesel say the engines run better, and we haven't seen any problems with fuel economy.”

Shorty, who serves as an American Trucking Associations vice-chairman as well as directing his own corporate operations, adds that there is no question that the demand for alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, will grow steadily in the coming years. Biodiesel is an attractive alternative fuel because it can be produced from renewable fats and oils (soybean oil among them), can be blended with petroleum diesel at any percentage, and works in virtually any diesel motor. It also offers enhanced lubricity and cetane.

Growing demand

Fuel benefits aside, the growing demand for biodiesel is bringing new hauling opportunities for tank truck carriers like Grammer Industries. “We're looking at a multitude of new opportunities with biofuels,” Shorty says. “Trucking companies will be able to transport the feedstocks, the finished fuel, and byproducts such as glycerin.”

The Whittingtons started to see the promise of biodiesel a couple of years ago. Then in 2005, Indiana passed state legislation providing up to $20 million in tax incentives for biodiesel, blended biodiesel, and ethanol production.

They joined the program and wasted no time staking out a plant site in Morristown, a rural community about 30 minutes east of Indianapolis. The key benefit of the location was its close proximity to a Bunge North America plant, one of eight soybean-processing facilities in Indiana. Bunge's oilseed processing division operates seven United States plants, which process 310 million bushels of soybeans annually.

Plant construction began in August 2005, and the facility was operational less than a year later. The grand opening was held Aug 1, 2006, and attendees included Indiana Lieutenant Gov Becky Skillman.

Initial plans were to purchase a prefabricated biodiesel production unit from a vendor. Faced with long lead times for the equipment, the Whittingtons changed course and decided to develop their own system with the help of two engineering firms and local steel fabricators.

They came up with a patent-pending system that is fully automated, very efficient, and easy to expand. “We believe we've got a better plant design, and we're going to market it to other biodiesel processors,” Shorty says.

The biodiesel plant is housed in a 55,000-square-foot building previously used as a lumber warehouse. It sits on a 17-acre site that includes a rail spur with capacity for approximately 35 railcars.

Inside the building is the hardware needed for the transesterification process that turns refined soybean oil into biodiesel. Rockwell automation was developed specifically for the Integrity Biofuels operation to ensure a smooth-running process.

The plant runs 24/7 and is overseen by 11 employees. Refined soybean oil feedstock arrives by tankcar from the Bunge plant, which is no more than 100 yards from Integrity Biofuels. “The oil we get is refined, degummed, bleached, and deodorized,” says John, who serves as chairman of the renewable fuels taskforce at the Agriculture & Food Transporters Conference in addition to his management responsibilities at Integrity Biofuels and Grammer Industries. “It costs a little more per pound, but it's easier to process and saves on production costs.”

Tankcars are used for the short-distance shipment because that's the most efficient method at this time, and Grammer Industries owns eight of the cars used for those movements. John says a pipeline from the Bunge plant to Integrity Biofuels could become feasible when feedstock demand grows sufficiently.

Incoming soybean oil is pumped to one of two 30,000-gallon tanks. From there, it is sent to the processing unit, where it is combined with methanol and a catalyst. It takes six to eight hours to make the biodiesel. Glycerin also is produced as a byproduct of the process.

Efficient process

A key feature of the Integrity Biofuels processing plant is its ability to reclaim a high percentage of methanol. The company uses a distillation column to reclaim more than half of the methanol used in biodiesel production, a key cost savings.

“The distillation column not only improves the efficiency of the process, but also reduces our operating cost,” John says. “Methanol costs us about $1.80 a gallon, and we don't want to just throw it away.

“We worked hard to design a system that produces biodiesel that is virtually free of impurities. Our system uses phase separation and water wash to remove the impurities.”

Glycerin is without a doubt the most important material removed from the biodiesel. It doesn't take much glycerin to completely plug the fuel system on a diesel engine. Captured glycerin is stored in a 15,000-gallon insulated stainless steel tank, and is sold to a variety of customers.

The biodiesel that comes out of the process meets the ASTM D 6751 standard for quality. Integrity Biofuels verifies compliance through constant analysis of each batch. Samples are evaluated using an infrared spectrometer that transmits data to Cognis Laboratories in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every load of biodiesel shipped gets a certificate of analysis.

Ready for shipment

Prior to shipment, the biodiesel is stored in one of three 30,000-gallon carbon steel tanks inside the production building. The biodiesel can be shipped to customers by either tank transport or tankcar.

“Our loading rack has both truck and rail access,” John says. “All of our initial shipments have been by truck, and all deliveries have been within 100 miles of the plant. However, we can envision a time when we'll be shipping larger volumes that could justify rail movements.”

Most of the shipments of biodiesel from Integrity Biofuels have gone to agricultural co-operatives, petroleum marketers, and truckstop operators. None of the biodiesel has gone to the Whittingtons' truck fleet.

“We can't sell the biodiesel to ourselves at this time,” John says. “We are solely a biodiesel processor and not a blender. We buy blended biodiesel for our fleet from a petroleum marketer. We'll be buying a lot more biodiesel from that marketer in coming years because we're convinced that this renewable fuel has big potential for the trucking industry.”