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BIOFUEL BOOM: Columbia Bioenergy Sets Standard in Northwest

Tue, 10/02/2007 - 4:46am
Something very interesting is going on at a biodiesel plant in Washington state

Editor's Note: Although Columbia Bioenergy never used a blueprint when building its new plant in early 2005, it currently stands as Washington state's largest producer of biodiesel with a current production capacity of 10 million gallons per year. As it continues to elevate the biodiesel movement in the Pacific Northwest, two of the company's leaders rely on their roots in the farming industry, key partnerships, and quality equipment to reach new heights. Here's their story…

Headquartered in Othello, WA, with its new biodiesel plant situated in the tiny town of Creston, Columbia Bioenergy is the blossoming brainchild of two livestock farmers — Brad Lyons, general manager, and John Graff, chief operating officer. Neither Lyons nor Graff ever dreamed of building a biodiesel plant. They both stumbled into it at the beginning of 2005.

"Both of us were in the feed business. Feed is built on proteins and part of our business was protein-based. Brad has always had an interest in alternative energy, and I needed a way to get rid of excess oil. We always knew biodiesel would play a part of it — we just thought someone else would be doing this part of the business plan. When others wouldn't or couldn't, it just kind of morphed and evolved into our own biodiesel production," said Graff.

Today, the two aren't stumbling at all. In fact, they are hitting their stride. Columbia Bioenergy's plant sits in the somewhat virgin biodiesel market of the Pacific Northwest but boasts a healthy production volume of 8 to 10 million gallons of methyl ester (or B100) per year. The company markets to the tri-state area (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) and is simply waiting to expand to its permitted capacity of 16 million gallons per year as the market catches up.

Early in the creation of this plant, Lyons and Graff spent days and nights at the plant trying to construct the most efficient and productive design possible. In fact, the two of them actually slept on cots at the plant many nights during the initial construction phases, and at one point they stayed awake for a 72-hour period trying to perfect the production process. But like many people who try something new for the first time, they met their share of hurdles.

"We started experimenting and trying new things along with doing the research. John's background, and mine as well, is in farming. As a farmer, I've made a lot of my own equipment. Through the process of trial and error, we set up a successful process. Each time we do a batch, we'd completely tear everything apart and then rearrange it, put it all back together, and then do it again. So, we probably had five or six different plant designs or flow systems," noted Lyons.

Once they were sure that their process would work and be efficient enough to produce biodiesel profitably, the two approached some investors so that the plant could reach the next stage of development. Along with Lyons and Graff, Columbia Bioenergy is owned by Bob Boersma and Gary and Micah Trautman. Both Boersma and the Trautmans bring unique skill sets to the group. With a background in transportation, Boersma handles all of the company's transportation and logistics duties, while the Trautmans handle the company's financials and risk management.

Properly Equipped

Columbia Bioenergy is not only pioneering its own biodiesel process but also is laying the groundwork for biodiesel regulations for the entire Northwest.
Columbia Bioenergy has grown into the largest biodiesel producer in the Northwest by hard work and dedication. However, both Lyons and Graff will be the first to admit that they experienced some struggles early on, but they eventually succeeded with a little help from some key people and the right equipment. "During that trial and error, one of the first obstacles we encountered was with pumps. Biodiesel manufacturing is essentially a combination of pumps, tanks, and pipes. Finding the right pumps was always a challenge," noted Lyons.

After trying several types of pumps for different applications throughout the production process, the two eventually turned to an expert: Northwest Pump & Equipment in Portland, OR. The company, which has been a leader for petroleum-related service in the region, has made the natural crossover to biodiesel production-related service. At the company's Spokane, WA, branch office, Rick Fuqua is considered the resident expert on biodiesel systems. Lyons and Graff definitely agree.

"We've worked with Rick Fuqua at Northwest Pump from the beginning, trying to source and locate pumps and other components. We'd call him for any little problem we had and he's truly been a great asset for us in perfecting our pumping systems," said Lyons.

Within the facility, Columbia Bioenergy relies on Blackmer XL and ProVane pumps for its most important applications and, as both Lyons and Graff will point out, the pumps have performed well above expectations. Headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, Blackmer is a manufacturer of positive displacement sliding vane and centrifugal pump technologies that are used by many producers of biodiesel throughout the world.

"We live and die by this Blackmer pump," Graff noted while walking past a ProVane (PV6) motor speed vane pump. "One of the most difficult aspects in the production of biodiesel is the alcohol recovery. That's where we have Blackmer's pump in really what would be considered an unfavorable pumping environment. We tried other pumps for the alcohol recovery, but none stood up to the Blackmer ProVane's ability to perform under a vacuum and pressure."

Lyons added: "Actually, everything in here is an unfavorable pumping environment. These pumps have to operate against high suction, then on the other side it's got to have some pressure to it. You have to handle low pH and high pH ingredients and a solvent, and just to make it all more difficult, you have high temperatures as well. So, there are very few difficult applications that you would not see a Blackmer pump in around here."

Columbia Bioenergy specs its pumps for the correct elastomers so that seals can properly contain biodiesel. Since this process has been in place, the company has not experienced any seal failures. "The pump is the heart of every biodiesel operation," stated Graff, "so another key reason we use Blackmer pumps is that they are easy to maintain. If a Blackmer pump happens to go down, it won't affect us that much. Due to its ability to remain connected to the piping while being serviced, it only takes about 15 minutes or so to replace the vanes in a Blackmer pump and get them back on line. However, I must point out that these pumps aren't in need of too much attention as opposed to other pumps we've used in the past."

"This is true," added Lyons, "the ability to quickly repair a damaged pump just isn't possible with gear pumps. Since the biodiesel industry is operating on pretty thin margins, we need our facilities to be operational for the majority of the time. With Blackmer's ProVane and XL pumps, it gives us the assurance that our plant will be at maximum capacity for the majority of the year."

"Another benefit that I must add is the true energy efficiencies we receive from Blackmer's pumps versus other technologies," added Graff. "They use less energy to help us produce more biodiesel energy for our customers."

Leading the Way

Biodiesel manufacturing is essentially a combination of pumps, tanks, and pipes.
Even though the biodiesel industry currently does not monitor for quality, Columbia Bioenergy has ensured that its product is exceeding industry standards. The company invested in a gas chromatograph early on in order to properly test its finished product. Results have shown that the total percent of glycerin (both free and bound) in its finished B100 is normally about 0.16 percent even though approved B100 can have 0.24 percent contained in the final product.

Along with holding itself up to higher standards, Columbia Bioenergy has been working hand-in-hand with its local Department of Ecology office for the state. Since the company is the first of its kind in the area, the Department of Ecology office has been learning how to regulate Columbia Bioenergy along the way. "If you call in to the Department of Ecology in our region and ask them how to make biodiesel, they will send you transcripts of our meetings. That's what you will actually receive," said Lyons.

Columbia Bioenergy is not only pioneering its own biodiesel process, but it also is assisting with laying the groundwork for biodiesel regulations for the entire Northwest. "Since we're the first plant around, we want to set the bar pretty high," noted Lyons. "We have zero emissions here at the plant. We not only have full recovery of our own alcohol, but we also process other people's byproducts that they can't deal with. It's actually a profit stream for us as well."

Graff added: "We're excited about our role in lessening the supplies of traditional fuels. The ability to supply those finite resources is changing things, and one of the biggest things it's changing is public policy. We have the ability to do more domestically than importing more with the technology available today. But from our standpoint, for every gallon of biodiesel we can make here, we can keep those dollars here and that's what's important to me."

Additional information on ProVane or XL pumps is available at www.blackmer.com or by calling 616-475-9390.

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