Small Scale Biodiesel Processing

Energy generation is usually location sensitive. This results in centralized facilities and complex distribution grids. Alternative energies, on the other hand, offer the possibility of decentralized generation. Micro-hydro is a good example of this, as is biodiesel.

RE Outlook 2003 – January 27, 2003 – Although biodiesel production has so far emulated fossil fuels, making use of large central facilities, the soundness of this strategy is now being challenged. Contrary to fossil fuels, biodiesel can be made from a variety of feedstock, rather than from a single feedstock originating in distant oil fields. Also contrary to fossil fuels, biodiesel production is very low-tech and not capital intensive. Finally, biodiesel production does not require economy of scale. There is no minimum size for a biodiesel facility. Small biodiesel plants are more energy and capital efficient by several orders of magnitude than their bigger centralized counterparts. A 180 ton/year facility will use 30-40 W per liter of biodiesel produced, whereas a 20,000 ton/year plant will need at least 400 W per liter. Also, small biodiesel facilities do not require technical staff support but can be operated by locally-trained non-technical staff. The rising demand for biodiesel has thus far been met by large plants, but as biodiesel becomes known, small individual units have proliferated. For four years I have been designing and manufacturing small biodiesel plants from 45 to 1800 tons per year priced from US$1,000 to US$40,000. The smaller units are batch units while the larger ones are batch or continuous. All use the base process and generate zero effluents. Demand for them has grown geometrically in the past 18 months. I hold that small biodiesel plants like these will out produce larger plants in the future. This will be possible because contrary to large plants, small units can be manufactured locally in large numbers, and make use of a greater variety of locally available feedstock. Small-scale biodiesel production generates a win/win situation, in which low tech inputs are transformed into a superior, environmentally friendly fuel, without the need for large capital expenditure, or expensive technology transfers. As a bonus, decentralization of fuel supplies will reduce distribution costs, stop gross local product transfer and what is more, empower people, making them energy self-sufficient. The know-how and the hardware are available. All we need now is a bit of word spreading. © Ricardo G. Carlstein – January 2003
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