Cutting-edge biodiesel pilot plant set to begin production

NEVADA, Iowa -- The main projects for a recent workday were computer programming and more work on the methanol distillation tower.

But the list of projects needed to finish a $500,000 remake of the 7-year-old biodiesel pilot plant at the Iowa Energy Center's Biomass Energy Conversion Facility in Nevada was getting shorter. Later this month project leaders expect the plant to be up and producing as much as 60 gallons of biodiesel per hour. The fuel that's produced will be sold on the open market.

Crews from the Iowa State University-based Iowa Energy Center, Mid-States Biodiesel of Hampton and Superior Process Technologies of Minneapolis have been working since last summer to rebuild the pilot plant.

Norm Olson, the facility manager at the energy conversion facility, said the new plant will allow continuous production of biodiesel rather than production of one batch at a time. The new plant will also be able to produce biodiesel from more than soy oil. Possible inputs include corn oil and low-value animal fats such as grease from food processors, rendering plants and restaurants.

Olson said the goals of the new plant include a better understanding of how various animal fats can produce biodiesel, more opportunities for economic development in Iowa, practical training for Iowa State and community college students and a fuel that's easier on the environment.

Most of the rebuilding costs are being paid by Mid-States Biodiesel and Superior Process Technologies.

Gary Bogenrief, the president of Mid-States Biodiesel, said the company will use the new pilot plant as a research and development facility. Company officials want to develop new technologies for producing biodiesel. They also want to train students to operate biodiesel facilities.

Within a few months of getting the pilot plant running, Bogenrief said company officials hope to start developing a commercial biodiesel plant.

Kirk Cobb, a process design engineer for Superior Process Technologies, said the company is doing the engineering and design work to rebuild the pilot plant. He said the company is using the pilot plant to demonstrate its technology for converting a variety of oils and fats into biodiesel. He said the company's goal is to use the technology in commercial biodiesel plants.

Olson said one result of the pilot plant's new tangle of pipes, tubes and containers will be to eliminate some of the smelly black clouds billowing from the exhaust stacks of diesel trucks and tractors.