Photo Journey: A Recipe For Biodiesel

Filed by Erika Engelhaupt and Steve Ritter


ON THE HORIZON Biocapital’s biodiesel plant in Charqueada is one of the first of many anticipated Brazilian facilities that will make biodiesel from vegetable oil and/or animal fat. Ironically, the plant is viewed across a sea of sugarcane, the source of ethanol, Brazil’s other biofuel.

Following up on our intriguing visit to an ethanol facility a couple of days ago, today we toured Biocapital’s biodiesel plant in Charqueada. We were greeted by the constantly smiling Roberto Engels, president of Biocapital. Engels indeed has much to smile about, as the future for biodiesel looks bright in Brazil.

Engels and his staff walked us through the facility and explained the company’s biodiesel production process. The Biocapital plant, which has been producing biodiesel for only a few months, was converted from an existing plant that was used to produce essential oils.

Biocapital currently uses fat rendered from cattle (beef tallow) as the starting material. Brazil is the world leader in beef production, and right now, the animal fat is the least expensive source of triglycerides for making biodiesel.


Foster Agblevor of Virginia Tech (shown right, from left) and Miguel Dabdoub of the University of São Paulo checked out a sample of the solidified beef tallow. The facility could use soybean or other plant oils, Engels noted, and in the future, that choice will be driven by market factors. The choice of starting materials for other biodiesel plants will be driven by both cost and regional availability.

fattanks-small.jpgThe beef tallow is stored in large tanks (left) before being loaded into a reactor. The Biocapital plant has two reactors, one with a capacity of 18 metric tons (below) and another with a capacity of 33 metric tons. Diesel fuel is a mixture of long-chain fatty acid esters, and in the case of biodiesel, they are derived by esterifying triglycerides. The Biocapital plant, like most biodiesel plants, uses 2% sodium methoxide as a transesterification catalyst and methanol as a solvent. The reactor is mechanically stirred with a giant paddle, and in about 30 minutes, the biodiesel is ready.



separator-small.jpgThe product mixture is transferred to a separator tank (left), where crude biodiesel separates from the methanol, residual sodium methoxide, and the glycerin by-product.




Biodiesel is purdistcolumn2-small.jpgified by vacuum distillation (280 ºC at 15 torr) to give the final product. A close-up of one of the distillation columns is shown at right. The Biocapital plant is a bit unusual in this regard, as most biodiesel plants rinse the biodiesel with water to remove impurities rather than distill it. The distillation columns were left over from the original plant, and the process engineers decided to make good use of them to produce an extra-pure biodiesel, as witnessed by ACS’s Brad Miller (below).


The by-product glycerin, still containing the sodium methoxide residue, is sent to storage tanks and periodically loaded onto tanker trucks to be sold. The methanol is recycled for subsequent batches.

qualitycontrol-small.jpg In Biocapital’s quality-control lab, Paulo Vieira of the Federal University of São Carlos (shown right, from left), Roseli Ferrari of Biocapital, and William (Rusty) Sutterlin of Renewable Alternatives pose with a minireactor that Ferrari uses to make test runs of biodiesel production parameters and to test the biodiesel and glycerin products.

The Biocapital plant also has a set of boilers that are powered in part by burning residual material from the reactor and distillation columns. These boilers produce steam for heating the distillation columns.












Biocapital’s plant currently has capacity to produce 60,000 metric tons of biodiesel per year, which is stored in tanks (above) until it is trucked to a distributor. But a capacity expansion is starting to take shape adjacent to the current facility. It will increase capacity up to 250,000 metric tons per year by next year, Engels noted.

Below, Biocapital plant manager Vilemar Magalhaes, Dabdoub, and Engels (left to right) chat after our tour, with a view of the distillation columns in the background. Down the road, Biocapital plans to become an integrated biofuels company, producing both biodiesel and bioethanol. The ethanol eventually could replace the petroleum-derived methanol in the process, but for now, methanol is cheaper.


Petroleum-based diesel accounts for 57% of Brazil’s transportation fuel market, Engels pointed out to our U.S.-Brazilian group. Gasoline, gasoline/ethanol blends, and pure ethanol supply most of the remainder. Brazil currently imports about 15% of its diesel, but the progressive nation is moving quickly to remedy that situation, Engels noted. By 2008, Brazilian diesel must include 2% biodiesel; by 2013, the mandate increases to 5%. Still, biodiesel accounts for only a few percent of Brazil’s 5.2 billion L per day diesel consumption. For companies in Brazil, and likewise in the U.S., the biodiesel future is wide open.

10 Responses to Photo Journey: A Recipe For Biodiesel

  1. Biodiesel fuels have an almost unlimited resources base for production.

    While the creation of biodiesel may have begun with experiments into the use of corn and soybeans, today’s technology goes far beyond that. We can use the virgin oils created by all sorts of different plants, many of which we use in our kitchens today.

  2. Bio-Seeker says:

    Bio fuels are deffinately the fuels of tomorrow. The only difficulty lies in convincing people of their viability.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. susan says:

    bio fules are agood thing 🙂
    wish ya better luck friends ! mean time you can use water for gasoline engines :

  4. Thiago Prado says:

    I don’t think this type of stuff that engine are moved by water is not a very good idea.

  5. Biofuels says:

    Rising demand for food in China, India, and other rapidly growing developing countries is the result of reducing poverty and that, of course, is a good thing! Over the longer run, a big part of the answer is for donors and developing country governments to invest more in improving agricultural productivity, as recommended by World Bank President Zoellick in his speech at the Center last week. In terms of what can be done now, this post focuses on the food aid problem and the need to reform US policy. A…

  6. Mike Cusack says:

    Found the articles here excellent.
    Keep up the good work. Will be checking back!!

    Biocapital looks to be doing interesting stuff here.


  7. R.H. in NC says:


    For interested biodiesel producers or plant mgrs, my client has a transesterification module system for sale. The refinery converts oil feedstocks into biodiesel, using palm oil, jatropha, rapeseed, etc; Ouput is 8,000-10,000 tons/pa and works independently. The refinery weighs approx 44 tons and fits on a truck container and will have to shipped from Europe. For pictures & details, please email:

    (Portuguese version): Olá!, nossa companhia de Estados Unidos, indústrias de Froehlich, ofertas consultando e importando para a indústria dos combustíveis biológicos dos E.U. Nós temos um cliente europeu que esteja vendendo seu sistema da refinaria (unidades do transestification) a uma companhia de produção global do biodiesel. Os mantimentos do óleo de conversos do sistema no biodiesel e trabalhos com óleo de palma, jatropha, rapeseed e outros óleos vegetais. O sistema pesa 44 toneladas e está pronto para a expedição do recipiente. Se interessado nos retratos e nos detalhes, envie por correio electrónico por favor Gracias

  8. kapure sunil says:

    I am working in bio-diesel.

  9. kapure sunil says:

    You are using very high temperature for distillation.
    Pls check in the lab temperature range 140-190 and vacuum 0.03torr for distillation.
    High temp will increase viscocity and acid value of bio diesel.

  10. Palm Oil says:

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    they’re discussing on the web. You actually know
    how to bring a problem to light and make it important.

    More people should check this out and understand this side of your story.
    It’s surprising you’re not more popular because you definitely
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