December 19, 2005 | General

New Breed Of Company Enters The Biodiesel Industry

BioCycle December 2005, Vol. 46, No. 12, p. 32
Search for alternative fuels locates new system that turns grease trap waste into vehicle power.
Cindy Rovins

UNTIL NOW, the production of biodiesel from grease trap waste has yet to be implemented commercially. Aside from various “backyard brewers,” – the real gunk known as brown grease that collects in below-ground traps in food establishments has yet to be tapped. This is an account of how a major paradigm shift is about to take place in the northeastern United States – and beyond! It’s also a look at the key players and the timing that brought it about.
C. David Butler, II – CEO of North American Biofuel Corporation (NABFC) – is a self-described problem solver. His partner and Executive VP of Business Development Alan Ellenbogen describes the 40-year-old Butler as a Renaissance man with a photographic memory. Graduating from New York University’s masters program at age 17, Butler currently has several engineering degrees.
After researching clean energy, Butler began experimenting with biodiesel three years ago. “The problem with biodiesel at first was the cost of raw materials. Soy as a food crop is around $1.70 per gallon of biodiesel produced. Your end product as a source of energy for biodiesel is going to be some function starting at $1.70 and going up from there. Yellow grease as a commodity, even at today’s prices of $.17 per pound, would work out to about $1.30/gallon for yellow fat. So I began to experiment with different materials that had a lower cost or no cost and had the characteristics of yellow fat, and soy and was associated with the waste stream.”
He began to experiment with trap grease and learned the problems associated with it: foreign objects, high water content, etc. and came up with technical solutions to solve those issues. Looking at historical production of various materials for fuel production, he found that most required extreme high temperatures and pressure, often putting more energy into the system than getting out of it. From there, he started looking at the organic chemistry of grease and how it breaks down without extreme heat and pressure.
Conventional biodiesel production also produces a continuous flow of high salt soapy water and a variety of methoxide vapors from the plant.
Using a series of catalysts, Butler developed a process that doesn’t use extreme heat or pressure, has no effluents or emissions and produces biodiesel, fertilizer good for land-based application, and usable glycerin. This closed-loop system also uses microturbines to generate heat and electricity.
Butler put the design on the shelf and would check in at intervals with his long-time business associate Ellenbogen on the viability of the process. When petroleum oil reached $30/barrel, Butler and Ellenbogen concurred, “We’ve got a business.” And so North American Biofuel Corporation was born.
Russell Reid is a wastewater management company based in Keasbey, New Jersey. They provide wastewater transportation and disposal, grease trap pumping and other nonhazardous wastewater services in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Long Island, New York. Their dedicated vehicles for grease trap pumping and hauling serve 4,000 customers that include restaurants, supermarkets and caterers.
Their problems all started in September, 2002, when according to Long Island Branch Manager David Galbraith, the Suffolk County, New York sewage treatment plant, “had a heart attack from too much cholesterol,” closing its doors to grease trap wastes. That grease got absorbed into a North Jersey plant, and it took two years for that plant to have a heart attack. Currently, a South Jersey plant with an incinerator that uses the grease trap waste to mix with their incinerator feedstock is the last holdout for grease trap waste disposal. That plant, says Galbraith, “is doing a little bit more exercise and burning off more calories, but the intake is starting to grow, so even though it runs around the block, the problem is it stops at McDonalds and has five cheeseburgers. It’s a matter of time – they already had a stroke (the plant had to shut down for 12 weeks due to a grease-caused flare) – in another year or two, that plant will shut down.”
David Andres, Russell Reid’s VP for Business Development, sums it up for the New York/New Jersey region: “So here you have Suffolk County, Long Island with no grease trap disposal. Technically, you only have Nassau County, Long Island with only in-county grease, and you have New York City, the largest city in the world with no ability to get rid of grease trap waste, and then in June, 2004, North Jersey, no more. What happened is a Grease Crisis.”
“That’s the backdrop to the world we live in. We currently truck our grease trap waste from this office in Long Island to South Jersey. It takes an entire day to move 7,000 gallons of grease.”
Enter NABFC. NABFC was looking for a grease trap waste hauler to help them profile the greasy stuff and set up a pilot plant at their facility. They found Russell Reid to be top notch and hence a partnership ensued. The first pilot biodiesel plant from grease trap waste would be built at the Russell Reid facility in Long Island.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey: Dr. Paula Marie Ward, Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers University’s Cook College, was on a mission. The Rutgers EcoComplex (see BioCycle December, 2004 and March, 2005 issues) had been charged by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) with coming up with sensible solutions to the grease trap waste problem. New Jersey produces in excess of one million gallons of grease trap waste per month.
Ward was interested in the waste from the perspective of applying her own closed-loop waste to energy digester technology known as organic energetics. Dave Specca, Director of Developmental Programs at the EcoComplex, was interested in the biodiesel potential. They set about researching and contacting other Rutgers people to look into a method for turning trap grease into biodiesel. In an effort to get grease trap waste samples to analyze, Dr. Ward contacted one of the two big haulers of trap waste in New Jersey, Russell Reid.
At that time, spring of 2005, Russell Reid had not yet had contact with NABFC. It was shortly thereafter that the connection was made, and Russell Reid brought the two groups together. At the initial meeting, the scientific minds of Ward and Butler clicked. It became evident what these groups had to offer each other, and a new relationship ensued. NABFC could run another pilot plant at the EcoComplex, become an incubator business, providing them the opportunity to improve their systems and continue their research. There they also plan to work on certification through New Jersey Corporation for Advanced Technology (NJCAT), which validates processes under New Jersey’s Energy and Environmental Technology Act, housed at the EcoComplex. And, the EcoComplex lab facilities will allow NABFC to batch test samples of different grease trap materials.
Since NABFC’s pilot plant produces energy, they can supply the energy needs of the EcoComplex office building. The EcoComplex can incorporate NABFC into their model of integrated waste facilities that they want to implement in New Jersey. New Jersey’s three priority problem wastes are grease trap wastes, horse facility waste and food wastes. Says Ward, “If those three products were handled by a combination of organic energetics, NABFC’s processes and others, we’d be able to reduce the impacts of those wastes by making power, fertilizers, soil amendments (composted material), clean water and other valuable products right here in our region.”
While those on the grease end were motivated for this beneficial reuse of grease trap waste to occur, what about those on the other end – is there a market for biodiesel, and can it be cost-competitive with petrodiesel? A few federal and state incentives are helping pave the way to increase biodiesel production and use.
Under the federal Clean Energy Bill signed into law in 2004, a tax credit provides reimbursement to biodiesel and ethanol producers for converting a wide range of commodities into bioenergy. The program payments to producers generally are passed on to consumers and help reduce the retail price of biodiesel. There is also a federal excise tax credit for biodiesel that is taken at the blender, or petroleum distributor level, and passed on to consumers. And, there are many state and regional biodiesel rebate programs, some of which are implemented through the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Clean Cities Program. New Jersey, for instance, has a biodiesel rebate program where government agencies and authorities are reimbursed for the incremental cost in using biodiesel in lieu of 100 percent petroleum diesel.
With all these factors into play, the time was right for NABFC to get started on their operations. A full scale plant takes six to nine months to construct. In the meantime, a pilot plant would serve their purposes to start production (the pilot can produce 1,000 – 2,000 gals./day vs. 202,000 gals./day for a full-scale plant), and to help fine-tune and showcase the technology.
Coming from David Butler’s engineering background in both the military and private sectors, portability was a key issue when designing the biodiesel plant. They based their system around Sea-Land containers – an entire pilot plant could fit in one. The system is fully automated through Programmable Logic Controller modules and is microprocessor controlled. Says Butler, “We have staff on board to load grease, to load chemicals, but the actual production is completely computer controlled. So it’s a very red button-green button operation.”
The system can take anything in the wastewater stream that has some form of fat content to remediate to fuel and by-products. They can use trap grease, vegetable yellow fat, rancid vegetable oils, fish oils, tallow, meat scraps, etc.
The Long Island pilot plant is a self-contained unit capable of testing a variety of feedstocks. They used a selection of off-the-shelf pieces for the test area, while the low-pressure spun polyethylene reactors are custom-made units.
The grease that is pulled from grease traps is pumped from the vacuum trucks into a fractionalization tank where passive settlement occurs. The trap product can be 70 percent water. After settlement, there is a layer of grease and a layer of water, which is pumped off and trucked to a sewage treatment plant. To drive off even more water, the grease goes through a centrifuge and also is “cooked.” The centrifuging gets rid of about 30 percent of the foreign bodies that make their way into grease traps: mop fibers, rubber gloves, food products, etc. The grease then goes through a series of filters that further screen out any residual material. The filter system is a conveyor-based system and empties itself into a dumpster.
The trap grease then goes into the primary processing system – at this point it looks like paste. A variety of catalysts and reagents are introduced. By the time it leaves the primary process, it begins to look like oil and after it leaves the final stage, it is biodiesel, meeting American Society for Testing and Materials specifications.
As the NABFC situation emerges, opportunities abound. Thus far, they have kept a low profile, but how to get there from here, while local and state legislators and authorities from around the country, liquid waste haulers, fuel distributors, food establishments, and diesel consumers are lining up and knocking at your door?
This is where Alan Ellenbogen appears very Zen-like. Ellenbogen sums up NABFC’s role: “We’re a commercial venture, but we’re a business with a heart and we know that it is good business to have a heart.” That also puts them in the driver’s seat and they know where they want to steer this endeavor. Building on their relationships with these groups, they are looking for several win-win situations to develop.
Beginning on the grease end, local authorities welcome a solution to the grease crisis. With them on board, NABFC and Russell Reid are in a position to lobby for legislation that requires cradle to grave manifestation of grease trap waste. Without such regulations, grease trap waste haulers and users are at the mercy of the grease trap generators – with no accountability as to what goes into the traps, how often they’re emptied, how they’re emptied, who is emptying them and where it ultimately gets dumped.
Since almost anything goes down the grease trap, another mechanism NABFC will use to monitor the grease flow is batch testing. Russell Reid samples each load it picks up, so if an establishment has something undesirable coming out of their trap, they will be able to go back to the source and with legislative enforcement behind them, have them clean up their act.
Next comes the siting of the biodiesel plants. Although the portability of their plant design would allow for many small plants throughout urban areas, they are instead looking at a smaller number of “sweet spot” plants, where production is at maximum efficiency and they are sited alongside synergistic technologies. According to Paula Marie Ward, “There are a lot of factors that would determine the size of each operation and that depends on the feedstock. Any transfer station would be a logical site – they are already permitted for transfer. Also, brownfield sites are logical locations for independent siting.”
“Permitting can be the limiting factor for any of these technologies. It could take years to get permitting. People are skeptical of new technologies and they are terrified something is going to smell, blow up, ooze or leak,” says Ward. NABFC already has a leg up in this area, with NJCAT’s certification and working directly with New Jersey Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection to streamline the process.
Ellenbogen provides another viable siting option: To have local sewage treatment plants as regional grease trap waste collection facilities. Haulers can empty into settling tanks and after a day, a more condensed product can be delivered to the biodiesel plant, leaving the water where it belongs.
Finally, there is the distribution of the product. NABFC is production only; the distribution will be handled by oil companies who can blend the product into various biodiesel grades of B5, B10, B20. While a major oil company has shown interest in all or most of its production, NABFC would like to see that the product gets equitable distribution, with fair prices and adequate distribution to the municipalities. Also, although a B100 product would be the environmentalist’s dream, by having more blended product available, there can be greater use of biodiesel in more vehicles. Even though there is plenty of grease to go around, the number of plants they are capable of building could not meet the total demand for the product.
Recognizing that it is the corn and soy farmers who are feeding the hungry alternative fuel consumers, the NABFC folks consider themselves farmers of another sort – urban farmers, who harvest grease from the concrete fields of the city. And so, after a long day’s work, the urban farmer can hop into his diesel pick-up and drive off into the sunset, chawing on a burger and fries.
To reach NABFC, contact Alan Ellenbogen at
Cindy Rovins is an Agricultural Communications Editor for Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension.
WHEN it comes to biodiesel, Europe has led the way. Unlike the U.S., 35 to 40 percent of Europeans drive diesel cars. And many of those are fueled by B100 or a biodiesel blend. Most of Europe’s oil used in producing biodiesel is processed from rapeseed (canola). In the U.S., most biodiesel is made from soy oil, with some made from waste products such as yellow grease.
Although the U.S. relies on diesel vehicles for its commercial and governmental sectors (trucks, school buses, heavy equipment), there has been a weight limit on diesel automobile imports, hence diesel cars are few. This will change in 2007, when the U.S. will open up the market to diesel vehicles that meet U.S. emissions standards.
Diesel vehicles have some advantages over gas-powered engines. Diesel cars get about 30 percent better mileage overall than comparable gasoline-powered cars. In terms of performance, modern turbodiesel-powered cars, when accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour, “will leave your head in the back seat,” says NABFC’s Ellenbogen. Also, the high compression of diesel engines means the engines have to be built stronger. As a result, diesel engines typically last longer than gasoline-powered engines.
The diesel’s downfall has been the high emissions/particulates from petroleum diesel fuel. Biodiesel does not emit sulfur dioxide and there is a significant reduction of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulates, air toxics and mutagenicity over petrodiesel, with only a slight increase in nitrous oxides. It also adds lubricity to the engine helping it last longer. It often improves gas mileage, and when used in a vehicle that has been previously run on petrodiesel, cleans the black soot out of the engines, often requiring immediate filter changes after the switchover.
Biodiesel blends can also be used as home heating oil, helping furnaces run better. Another advantage is the safety factor for shipping and storage. Biodiesel is not highly flammable or explosive. “You can take your cigarette and put it out in biodiesel,” says Ellenbogen.
Biodiesel can be used in its pure form or blended at any level with petroleum diesel. For instance, a B20 biodiesel is a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. Blends as low as B5 still provide many of the benefits of biodiesel use.
WHETHER frying in oil or releasing fat through grilling, broiling or boiling, food establishments end up with large amounts of grease for disposal. Some used fryer grease may never hit the drains – this “yellow grease” is sometimes stored and then collected by the oil supplier who sells it on the commodity market, often to be used for animal feeds. The rest of the grease, once it goes down the drain becomes “brown grease.”
Grease enters food establishment grease traps from dishwashers, sinks, floor drains and dumpster pads. Grease traps are used to recover the grease and protect the sewer lines. The traps are designed for the incoming wastewater to be slowed to allow the grease to cool and float to the top and solids settle out to the bottom. 90 degree angle pipes keep the floating grease from floating out of the trap. If the grease, solids and bottom sludge are not completely pumped out, new grease has nowhere to collect and escapes to the sewer. Blockage of sewer lines occurs when grease traps are not maintained properly. Escaping grease builds up on the walls of the sewer until the line is completely blocked (municipal heart attack). Proper maintenance requires the entire contents of a grease trap to be pumped out every three months.
Having grease traps properly pumped out can be a costly endeavor for the food establishment. They may not use reputable grease haulers or choose instead to find other creative ways to dispose of it, such as freezing it and setting a block of frozen grease out on the sidewalk for garbage pick-up.
Whether it’s illegally dumped or escaping out of traps, much of the grease ends up in the sewer lines. The blocked sewer lines cause a back-up of sewage and hence sewage overflows into local waterways. This is a common occurrence and a real headache for local sewage authorities causing them to violate their permits under the Clean Water Act.
BASED in Ontario, New York, Northern Biodiesel was founded three years ago by Jason Masters, the company’s president. As an example of ongoing progress in the biodiesel industry, The New York Times reported last week that the firm received financing to build a plant to turn cooking oils and agricultural residuals into diesel fuel. Commented company vice president Bob Bechtold: “Banks used to dismiss me as a tree-hugger when I tried to borrow for an environmentally advantaged product.” Northern Biodiesel is cited as the only local producer of biodiesel for upstate New York; it’s located about 10 miles out of Rochester.

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