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.
The 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.
The 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 purified 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.
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.