December 19, 2005 | General

Our Place In The Biodiesel Waste Stream

BioCycle December 2005, Vol. 46, No. 12, p. 28
A North Carolina company is building a commercial biodiesel facility that will make and market about a million gallons per year – showing what can be done in many communities.
Lyle Estill and Rachel Burton

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, we helped to found Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, North Carolina whose mission is to increase use of renewable biofuels. Piedmont Biofuels provides biodiesel to the community; makes it own fuel from waste vegetable oil; operates a glycerin composting facility; and has an intern program that allows people to live on-site and learn the operation. From the beginning, Piedmont has focused on small-scale biodiesel production using a reactor design, and has recently incorporated Piedmont Biofuels Industrial LLC – moving into an abandoned chemical plant on the edge of town.
Years ago, we used to participate in “Stream Watch,” which is a statewide program of volunteers who measure water quality. We would round up the kids, head down to Stinking Creek in Chatham County, and spend a couple of hours. We would record water temperature, measure pH, and most importantly, count bugs.
To do so, we would overturn a rock and examine the community we would find. Sometimes we would startle a crayfish, and we would often find mayfly larvae and dragonfly nymphs in the midst of their life cycles. What intrigued us about this exercise was that these beings were just hanging out, living on the nutrients that the creek delivered to their part of the rock. Nutrition delivered to their door, and their waste carried downstream by the current. Simple.
Many people in the BioCycle community have devised similar arrangements. Those in the recycling industry have figured out that there is a living to be had from waste. Waste comes to the door, and is converted into sustenance. It’s amazingly simple. And logical.
And yet, America doesn’t seem to quite get it yet. It is noteworthy that the rest of the world shows up at America’s back door, to tote away the trash, to cycle it back into products that America can’t import fast enough.
Scrap metal is one example of this, and its price is a leading economic indicator. The Federal Reserve keeps an eye on the price of scrap metal, because when it edges upwards, it is an indication that our economy may be heating up. The scrap metal of America is shipped to the Pacific Rim and remanufactured into products that we can’t seem to buy fast enough.
Wood waste is another. North Carolina is experiencing a carbon shortage right now. Our wood waste is being shipped to Italy, where it is gasified, and turned into carbon neutral electricity to help that country meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets in keeping with the Kyoto Accord.
Waste vegetable oil is another. The Southeast is a net exporter of used fryer oil. We ship it to Europe where it is made into biodiesel. Biodiesel is a clean burning renewable fuel that runs in any unmodified diesel engine.
Imagine. We get the fried turkey, the fried dough, the fried potatoes, and the deep fried Snickers bars. The other night, we were at a remarkable party on the other side of the creek, where we had our first piece of deep fried sweet corn. When we are done frying with the oil, we ship it off on container ships to countries that use our waste to power their transportation sectors.
Meanwhile our transportation sector is just standing by, apparently waiting for hydrogen, and spewing out air pollution as it idles. We are casually watching, while our skies darken, while we lose our view sheds, and while the storms along our coasts increase in both intensity and number. Where is the simplicity in that?
Making biodiesel is simple. Vegetable oil consists of a glycerin molecule attached to a few carbon chains. Glycerin is an alcohol. When we make biodiesel, we swap the glycerin molecule with another alcohol-generally methanol-although ethanol can also be used.
The glycerin is nontoxic and can be composted. It’s pure carbon, although as a liquid it is not as desirable as the wood waste that we ship abroad. We are in the process of building a small commercial biodiesel facility in Pittsboro, North Carolina that will make about a million gallons of fuel per year and will yield about two million pounds of crude glycerin.
We are a long ways from the first glycerin coming off the line, and already we have been contacted by a Chinese firm that is interested in procuring our glycerin coproduct. They are lining up to mine a waste stream that does not yet exist. Do they know something we don’t?
The fact that there is good energy left in waste vegetable oil is not news. The rendering industry has been collecting used fryer oil for years, and repurposing it into animal feed and makeup. Biodiesel is merely jumping into that waste stream and vying for the product. Some claim that fuel has a higher value proposition – but we’re not sure. We certainly value a full tank of fuel, but then again, we don’t wear a lot of makeup.
The commercial plant that we are working on, by the way, was simply an abandoned chemical plant on the edge of town. A chemical industry insider once told me that there are three hundred such abandoned plants between Pittsboro and Charlotte. North Carolina’s abandoned textile infrastructure can easily be retooled for biodiesel. The biodiesel industry often claims that $1 of capital cost is required for every gallon per year of production. If you want to build a million gallon plant like ours, have a million dollars handy. We are suspicious of that number. We believe that by not starting with a green field, by recycling abandoned industrial infrastructure, we will be able to bust that dollar per gallon figure nicely.
It is possible to find packaged plants that are coming in at closer to $1.20 per gallon of capital costs. These tend to be complete roll-off plants, often containerized black boxes with proprietary catalysts where you put your feedstock in one end, and the fuel comes out the other. Our plant will be considerably lower tech than that. We will be in batch processing mode, so that we can accommodate a variety of feedstocks, presumably focused on the least expensive fat that is passing by that day.
And we believe, by the way, that feedstocks are 85 percent of this game. You can tweak the technology. You can mess around with automation and labor costs. You can focus on energy costs, but all such adjustments are focusing on tiny fractions of the business. 85 percent of the game is feedstocks. We are trying to set up our place underneath the rock, in a comfortable streambed, where the fats, oils and greases can wash over us and come out as fuel.
North Carolina has the feedstocks. We have the abandoned infrastructure. So let’s make some biodiesel. Once our finished product enters the world, it is going to compete with petroleum. That’s no contest. Our emissions profile is so much better than petroleum diesel, we can command a premium right off the truck. But let’s forget about clean air for a moment.
Carbon pollution is not yet traded in America, and there are no carbon taxes in this country, so it’s pretty clear we don’t value clean air. And let’s forget about “made in America.” That’s a fuzzy thing that simply helps our economy-not our individual wallets. Let’s just get down to the dollar. That seems to be the only thing folks really care about.
Our homegrown biodiesel is currently more expensive than its petroleum counterpart. We have been selling fuel for the past three years for $3.50 a gallon. When we started this project, petroleum was at $1.69. It spiked up to $3.59 in Pittsboro when Katrina visited, and it has currently fallen back to around $3 a gallon.
When analyzing the competitiveness of biodiesel versus petroleum fuel, a whole hairy world of subsidy suddenly emerges. As a society, we have allowed petroleum to externalize its costs. There are two price components in a gallon of fuel that are not paid at the pump. The first is security, the second is health care.
The American taxpayer agreed to pay extra to secure our oil supplies in the seventies under the Carter Doctrine. That’s when we installed our massive military presence in the Persian Gulf, which we have sustained for the past 30 years. We don’t ask Exxon to pay for the fighter jet escorts that their tankers enjoy. We pay for those on April 15th when we mail our money into Uncle Sam. How much is the security subsidy per gallon? I don’t know. Let’s add a buck just for fun.
America is one of the last countries on earth to enjoy a free market for health care. Everywhere else on the planet, where the government has a toe in the health care costs of its citizens, fuel is more expensive. How much per gallon would petroleum pricing rise if we asked its purveyors to pay the health effects of their products? I’m not sure. Let’s add another buck.
When we plug in externalities, biodiesel is a bargain. For the past three years, petroleum pricing has been coming to us. One of the problems with biodiesel is we are such a small percentage of America’s fuel mix today, that on those occasions when we are cheaper than petroleum, all the biodiesel in the land gets snapped up in about five minutes. As an industry, we are, after all, a 30 million gallon piece in a 120 billion gallon pie.
We should say that Piedmont Biofuels is an anomaly. We are a grassroots effort that has grown to commercial scale, and we have irons in a lot of fires. One of the primary goals of our commercial project is to collect feedstocks from within one hundred miles of Pittsboro, and to sell our fuel into the same hundred mile area.
At the heart of our project is the Biofuels Program that we run at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. This has grown from a half dozen of us, who were merely interested in meeting our fuel needs, to a full curriculum course that is packed to overflowing each semester. Some graduates of this program go on to make their own fuel, some go on to further study at neighboring universities, and many show up at our door looking for fuel.
Since we have never been able to make enough fuel to keep people full, we started importing biodiesel from far away places like Iowa, Indiana and Florida. To that end, we have built a fuel terminal in Pittsboro, and using a reconditioned home heating delivery truck, we backstop five B100 locations across our region that we call the B100 Community Trail.
Biodiesel is commonly shipped in blends. B20 refers to a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum. B2 is 98 percent petroleum, etc. What makes us unusual is that we are all running around on B100, and some of us even look down our noses on blends. Part of our community simply wants to fill up and drive. We are incorporated as a coop, and as such we are regulated more like a private fleet than as an entity that is “open to the public.”
Piedmont Biofuels coop operates a small research farm in Moncure, North Carolina, where members can make their own fuel, and where we hold workshops on fuel making. We also do some design-build consulting for those interested in building small-scale production plants.
On the farm, we also do oilseed research, where we grow test beds of oilseed crops to be crushed and used as “virgin oil.” To date, we have run trials on sunflowers, oilseed radish, wild mustard, and rapeseed, and these projects are generally done in conjunction with universities. NC State, University of Idaho, and Virginia State University have all provided support to our oilseed research. We hold tours of the farm, and our fuel making facility every Sunday afternoon at one o’clock, and we estimate that we have over 1,000 visitors per year.
From time to time it can seem overwhelming. We operate a coop, and a farm, a small fuel distribution business and do agritourism to boot. We are building a commercial-scale plant, running a biofuels program at the college, consulting on projects nationwide, and we try to take every opportunity to provide education and outreach for the fuel. It doesn’t always seem simple, but that is perhaps because we are still settling in to our community in the stream.
Lyle Estill and Rachel Burton from Piedmont Biofuels presented topics on developing biodiesel and marketing it “in your bioregion” at the BioCycle Southeast Conference last month in Charlotte, North Carolina. Burton is a biofuels instructor, fuel maker and activist. Estill is the author of Biodiesel Power: The Passion, The People, and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel (published by New Society Publishers,, and publisher of Energy Blog. Visit
AN ESTIMATED 75 million gallons of biodiesel fuel were produced in the United States this year, triple the production in 2004, reports the National Biodiesel Board. In the process called transesterification, either a strong base or acid is used as a catalyst; if that acid or base is liquid, it needs to be separated from the biodiesel when the process is completed.
Scientists from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and other Japanese research centers, says the journal Nature, have developed a catalyst described as “easy and relatively inexpensive to make.” It’s a solid acid, made by charring sugars, starches or other organic material and treating them with sulfuric acid. According to the Nature account, the result is a matrix of ringed carbon molecules dotted with active sites where the transesterification reactions occur. The material, a black powder that can be molded into films or pellets, is reported to be not as efficient a catalyst as liquid sulfuric acid, but more effective than other solid biodiesel catalysts.

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