Flournoy Green Tech
How the biodiesel processor came together
It all started at a Waffle House. My brother Cole and I were having a mid-day breakfast and at some point in our conversation, biodiesel popped up. Cole and my dad had just gone to pickup my dad’s TDI (Diesel) VW Wagon. He was buying this particular car because it had a small diesel engine in it that enabled it to get close to 50 miles to the gallon. At this time diesel prices were approaching $5.00 per gallon so there was plenty of motivation to get an efficient vehicle. The guy that he purchased it from was making biodiesel in a shed in his back yard with two rusty water heaters, a cheap pump, and a pair of jeans to use as filters. The man was very excited to show off his creation to Cole and my dad.
Cole told that what the man had shared with him about biodiesel didn’t seem to be too complicated, and if I could make a biodiesel processor, I could save the business a ton of money, help the environment, and make a little money all at the same time. My dad owns a local tree work company and over 90% of his fleet runs on diesel equipment. Diesel prices being as high as they were, he was shelling out an average of $10,000 per month just on fuel, $12,000 per month at the highest. This was all the motivation I needed to look into the biodiesel process more.
The first real step in the process was learning everything I could learn about biodiesel. I bought books, read online articles, I even went out to a few local people who had made their own biodiesel processors. At this time I knew literally nothing about biodiesel. I had a lot to learn. I spent hundreds of hours on researching about biodiesel, all over the course of about four months. I was learning so much though. I had never really been so motivated to learn about something new. I started out with zero knowledge, and within a few weeks I could walk you through a titration test, or tell you all of the pro’s and con’s of biodiesel. It was having so much fun just learning about this the whole process, knowing that in the end it would be helping the family, the environment, and me.
After learning nearly everything there was to know about biodiesel, I started my material gathering. At first, all I wanted was the simple setup like the one the previous owner of my dad’s car had. I was planning on picking up an old water heater that someone was trying to get rid of, throw some tubes in it and start making some biodiesel. My timeline for this was about a month at the absolute most. So I went into Home Depot with my very obscure list of items to buy, and then it started to dawn on me that this was not going quite as easy as I hoped. Home Depot had maybe 1/10 of the items on my list.
My next plan was to buy a processor. For a long time I did more research of the pro’s and cons of each and every biodiesel processor that you could buy. Most of the “affordable” ones had plastic tanks, which in my mind are very dangerous. But the cheapest processor that had a metal tank started at $8,000.00. For a while I came very close to buying a processor that most closely met my criteria. The only problem was that it was unbelievably expensive and still had a few things about it that I didn’t like. That is when I decided to go back to my initial plan and build it my self
Learning about biodiesel is one thing, but figuring out how to build a machine that makes biodiesel requires a much larger field of skills. Sure, I could tell you how many grams of potassium hydroxide to use per gallon of waste vegetable oil if the oil titrated at a 3, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how to wire a light switch. I had plenty of learning left to do. Still, my plan was to make a processor as fast, and as cheap as I could. I never planned on making my processor into what it is today. So I was back to square two, gathering materials. My dad mentioned about how nice it would be if my processor was on wheels, and able to move around. I liked the idea, so I looked for a frame to build the processor on. Out back at my dad’s shop was a large industrial rail that we extracted from a closing factory. It was about 20 feet long and two feet high. It also had four legs with wide feet on the bottom. The railing looked like the perfect thing to make into a frame for my biodiesel processor.
My dad never taught me how to use the cutting torch or weld because he was worried about the fumes that were produced so this put me at a disadvantage. I had to rely on someone else to do the metal working of my processor frame. So here I am a 14 year old trying to entice one of my dad’s employees to cut this rail in half, or weld some metal here, or grind this off and weld it there instead. All of this work had to be done by my dad or one of his employees in their spare time which was not very often. Slowly, the frame came together.
Throughout the process, I made a number of sketches of what my processor would look like. This is what I went by when I was building the frame. Metal would have to be welded in a certain position in order to allow everything to fit. A small miscalculation and I would end up grinding the metal off, and starting from scratch. Here are some of the sketches I made:
After some time, the frame was finally finished. Next on my list was to find some tanks to use. I knew that I could get them made but that would cost far more than a used one. The only problem with that is that you don’t come across a used, stainless steel, cone bottom tank for sale too often. I called everyone in town for the most part and there was not a tank to be found. It wasn’t until one of those places I had called, called me back and gave me someone’s number. So I called them, they gave me a different number to call… and on and on until I got a hold of Alan. Alan bought used factory equipment in large quantities and pieced the equipment out to people like me. Turns out that there was a cigarette factory closing about an hour away from our shop, so my dad and I went out there to meet Alan. When we got there, I felt like I was in Disney world. This place had just about everything you could imagine that you would need to make a biodiesel processor. They had schedule 80 PVC pipe and fittings, more stainless steel tanks than you have ever seen, pneumatic actuating valves, stainless steel gauges… the list goes on and on. It was exactly what I needed. My dad and I must have made at least 10 trips up there. We first bought two stainless steel cone bottom tanks that had about a 500 gallon capacity, and a 400 gallon capacity. Then we went back and bought a much smaller 80 gallon tank. I never ended up using the 500 and 400 gallon tanks, they are sitting in my shop collecting dust. The 80 gallon tank on the other hand, is the heart of my processor, the tank where the chemistry happens. We made a few more trips up to the factory, and bought some of the PVC pipe, pneumatic valves, and some gauges.
Around the time I finished the frame, I knew that I had to build my processor to be automated. There was no way I could balance school and my biodiesel business unless I only had to spend a few hours a week on it. My dad thought I was crazy, he never imagined that I would automate it, but I’ll get to that later. To make my machine automated, I needed some sort of valve that would be computer controlled. I did more research and found some devices called actuating valves. They were either electric powered or pneumatic (air) powered. But, they were outrageously expensive. Who would have guessed that the cigarette factory had dump truck loads of pneumatic actuated stainless steel valves? When I first saw the valves at the factory, they looked huge, each weighing about 70 pounds apiece. I never imagined that I would use them, but they were so cheap that I figured that I could either sell them, or trade them for a more appropriate sized valve.
My dad recalled a company that he had done some work for five years back. The company was called Valve Automation, PERFECT! So I called them up and this led me to yet another great friend that has helped me throughout the process. Kerry Winston is a valve expert. He took my valves and put a few more instruments on them, and changed them around to be exactly what I needed. It turned out that those valves that looked so huge at one point, ended up being the perfect size.
By now I had enough components to start putting the machine together. Now let me remind you, I didn’t have any sort of manual on how to put together a biodiesel processor. I had to figure out pretty much every aspect of it. I started out by setting my tank up on the frame, which was one of the most exciting parts of the journey. It was really starting to look like something. Then, I set the valves, and the pumps I ordered online, onto the processor. Then I started putting the pipes together roughly. I didn’t glue them together yet because I didn’t know if it would be my final plan. Instead I just pushed them into each other. After many hours of this, I had a rough layout of my biodiesel processor. Perhaps the saddest part was that I had to completely dismantle it all immediately to have the frame painted.
After the frame was painted, it really looked great. My dad had a painter that came in often to paint some of his equipment, so I used him. It looked like it had just come from a factory. The only thing I regret about the paint job is that it has no chemical resistance what so ever. If I spill one drop of biodiesel on the paint and don’t wipe it up for a few minutes, the paint will come right off. If I ever make another one, I will defiantly pay more attention to the type of paint I use.
I was now ready to begin the final construction of my processor. I put the tanks back up on the frame, along with the pumps and valves. I put the plumbing back together, but in a much different layout. When I went to put the plumbing together this time around I made sure to do it in a much cleaner fashion. I spent a few weeks getting the plumbing installed, then I mounted my electrical box and began wiring up my pumps and the heating element. I had never had any electrical experience before in my life so this went pretty slow in the beginning. I needed to get a feel for electrical work. I had a lot more wiring ahead, more than I would have ever imagined.
Now I officially had a biodiesel processor. This contraption that I had spent nearly eight months on was finally ready to fulfill its purpose, to make biodiesel. For my first batch, I only made 20 gallons. This was a test batch to identify any leaks I would have in the plumbing. There were a few, but nothing that an oversized pipe wrench couldn’t fix. The batch was successful, I even made my mom and dad watch as I processed my first batch of oil. Everything turned out fine. 20 gallons of biodiesel and four and a half gallons of glycerin, just as expected. To test my first batch of biodiesel I found a small, old diesel engine that I ran it in before anything else. I didn’t want to put it straight into an operational piece of equipment only to find that there was a problem with the biodiesel. I poured the biodiesel into the small engine, and it ran beautifully. It even smelled similar to popcorn, though when I smell it now it reminds me more of steaks on the grill. I can’t imagine a first trial run being more successful.
I was in business. I had a machine that could produce a valuable product that was also better for the environment. I still had plenty to do. At this point I had to go around and turn the valves manually, turn the pumps on and off manually, and monitor the whole process. My next goal was to automate the entire process. That task was the hardest part during the whole construction. I enjoyed every step though because I was learning something completely new, and it was really cool! It is very rewarding to watch the machine do something that I previously had to do for it. It was like potty training a child. Like I said earlier, my dad had serious doubts that I was going to be able to automate the process. I think this was because it was something that he could never grasp. He could weld and wire up pumps all day, but he never learned how to write the code for a computer to control the whole process. He never told me this while I was automating it. After I was nearly done, he told me his true feelings. He always says the only reason I was able to do it was because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
My first baby steps towards automation were to make the valves actuate by the flick of a switch. It took a few weeks to finish this job but this step alone made the process much easier. I no longer had to run circles around my processor to move the valves. Now everything was able to be controlled by switches in the electrical panel. You can see this point in time in the first two YouTube videos found below:
I still had to monitor the pumps, and turn off the heating element after a certain time frame passed. To automate that part I installed a timer on the heating element, and the main mix pump. Now I could set the heating element to stay on for an hour, set the main mix pump for an hour and simply walk away. My processor was slowly becoming automated.
There was only so much I could automate without a computer onboard the processor. My dad had bought a PLC (industrial computer) and a relay strip from automation direct a few months back in hopes of figuring it out and putting it to use. From what I could see the only thing he was using it for was to collect dust, so I asked him if I could mess around with it. The next thing he knew it was mounted in my electrical box, with no hope of ever getting it back. The only concern I had with the PLC was that I didn’t know how to program it. Automation Direct had demo software for the PLC that had a maximum of 100 lines of code. I played around with it some but I wasn’t making much progress. I read plenty of free online material and I did learn a lot but I still wasn’t quite sure how to make it do what I wanted. I decided to hire someone online to write the program code for me. I found someone who was interested in doing it for about $200. I went ahead and gave him a long list of all of the commands I needed the PLC to do. We emailed back and forth a couple of times and he wasn’t making much progress, yet seemed to have hour’s worth of questions for me. The programmer ended up not talking to me, and just gave me what he had done. What he had done was about three pitiful lines of code. That was nowhere near what I had paid him to do. I studied his work and figured it out myself. That was the only money I invested in my programming “education” if you want to call it that.
Looking back at that experience, I am very happy that the programmer did not complete his job. This forced me to learn how to do it myself. There would have been no way that I could have automated the machine without knowing how to write the code for the PLC. Played around with the program a little more and with the little code that the programmer gave me, I was able to complete the task. Pretty soon thereafter, I was outgrowing the demo software. This was quite bad because the real software cost $500 and I couldn’t afford it. For a while I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to go for broke. I contacted Automation Direct by email, told them my story and asked them if they could give me a discount on the software. I got a response from one of their representatives named Chip. Chip delivered some very exciting news. He told me that he would be willing to cut me a deal on the software, and to let me know if I needed anything else! This was just what I needed! Automation Direct donated many parts I needed to automate my machine. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.
I spent about three months getting my machine automated. I had to figure out many things. I ran my first automated batch in August, 2009. This first trial wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. The only problem I was having was with the code. I would accidently have the machine turn something on at the wrong time, or set a timer too slow. None of the problems were bad, I would just have to edit the code a little when I identified a problem. I had it running batches by itself within a couple of days. By now this machine was getting to be pretty complex. It knew every position of every valve on the machine, the temperature of anything that was in the processing tank and when the tank was full. It was very satisfying watching the machine do something that I had to spend hours doing, all by itself. This was already saving me a ton of time.
There were still a few things not automated. Glycerin draining was not very efficient. It ran on a timer so each time it would drain an extra three gallons of biodiesel out. I could recover the biodiesel later, but it was still an extra step. It also required me to measure out and load the KOH (potassium hydroxide).
There were also a few things that I didn’t like about the processor. First off, the methoxide was being mixed in an open container which releases dangerous fumes. I was sucking the fumes off with a fume fan, but I would rather not have the fumes released at all. So, I decided to take out the open top barrel, and replace it with a plastic cone bottom tank. As you know, I am not a big fan of plastic tanks so I planned on only using it temporary. This upgrade lead to a near disastrous situation. After I installed the new tank, I was testing it out in manual mode. Everything was going fine, I pumped the methanol into the tank and everything was working. I then proceeded to measure out the KOH and pour it into the new tank, a routine operation. I always wear my full face protection mask that has an air filter on it also, gloves, and an apron. I opened the top of the new tank and dumped the KOH in, then closed the lid. As I was walking back around the processor, noticed my diaphragm pump slow down. I went over to see what the problem was and as soon as I walked over to the static mixer that mixes the methanol and KOH, I saw that it was clogged. This was backing up the air powered diaphragm pump creating lots of pressure. I quickly jumped to hit the emergency off button, but before I could reach it, the pipe exploded. This released the pressure, allowing the diaphragm pump to pump slightly mixed methanol and KOH all over me. KOH is highly caustic and severely burns the skin on contact. I was not able to hit the emergency off button before the pipe exploded, so now the caustic and highly flammable mixture was spewing everywhere. The pump was still running and I needed to turn it off as fast as possible. The only way to do that was to run through the stream of KOH and methanol to hit the emergency off button. That’s exactly what I did. I was already splashed with chemicals to begin with and having to run through more of them made the situation worse.
I immediately jumped into a shower and got the chemicals off of me. My decision to wear my face protection that day is the only reason I can see today. My mask is still scared from where the slightly mixed methoxide (KOH and methanol) sprayed all over the front of it. Had I not worn my mask, it would have gone directly into my eyes and all over my face. The only place that it did damage to me was where a few drops hit my exposed ear and burned a small hole nearly all the way through. The only reason the extent of my injuries were so small was because I chose to wear my safety gear. Now, you can imagine, I take all safety precautions even more serious than before.
This accident allowed me to see many flaws in my system. The saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is very true in this example. I began the cleanup and repairs the very next day. The worst damage that it did to my machine was that the chemicals ate off nearly all of the paint from the front of my processor frame. The piece that failed was the one piece of schedule 40 PVC I had on my machine. Everything else is made of schedule 80 PVC which is much stronger, but the static mixers I bought only came with sch. 40 PVC male adapters on them. That goes to show you that you are only as strong as your weakest area.
To avoid this problem ever happening again I added an emergency off button 50 feet away from the processor, pressure relief valves that opens if there is more pressure that should be there, secured the plumbing, and added a shield over the plumbing. These upgrades make it impossible to ever have that situation happen again. This experience has also made me pay more attention to other potential problems which I fixed making my processor so much safer.
After going through an upgrade phase that was purely devoted to safety, I was back up and running again. This time, much safer, more efficient and faster. My machine could make 60 gallons of biodiesel every 6 hours. There were still a few things that I was unhappy about. My dry wash (final biodiesel purification) system took a very long time to change out after the purification media would expire. It was also very messy. To fix this, I drew up a specially designed tank that would make the purification much more efficient and faster. Also, changing out the purification media requires much less time, is very easy, and relatively clean. I handed my plans over to Mike, my welder that had done plenty of excellent work for me in the past. A while later, my tank was ready to be installed. Let me tell you it is a thing of beauty. It is very exciting to see plans on paper turned into a tangible object. I installed the new dry wash tank, a new pump, valve, and heating element along with some automation equipment. The only thing left to do before I was ready to test the tank out was to run a pipeline from my processor all the way to my fueling station. Before I installed this, I would have to pump the biodiesel into a barrel, put the barrel in a truck and drive it over to the fueling station where I would then pump it from the barrel into the fueling station tank. This took a long time and was quite annoying. To avoid doing this I ran a pipeline across the wall, into the ceiling, through the wall, along the wall, all the way into the fuel tank. Total I ran about 200 feet of pipe. I was very happy to do this because it would save me a ton of time and headache. After I installed that, it was time to test my tank! I filled the chamber with the purification media, pumped some biodiesel into the tank, heated it up and ran it through. I also designed my new tank to give it the ability to recover excess methanol from the biodiesel, lowering overall costs, and producing a higher quality fuel. Everything worked perfectly! Cloudy contaminated biodiesel would go in one side, and crystal clear purified biodiesel out the other.
After making sure my tank was in working order, I edited the code to include the new tank. Adding this new tank reduced the overall time from 6 hours to 4. Now I could produce 60 gallons of biodiesel every four hours. The best part about the new tank was that it enabled me to be processing a batch of oil while I was dry washing the previous batch. The next thing on my list to automate was the glycerin draining process. To do this, I bought a special sensor that I altered to give it the ability to tell the difference between biodiesel and glycerin. I had to run a few tests and dial it down, but now it works great. Now, there is hardly any extra biodiesel drained off with the glycerin. During the last few upgrades, I was not making any biodiesel and I just stocked up on waste vegetable oil. As soon as the machine was operational, I ran my machine more than I ever have, making over 1,000 gallons in a week! It was so good to see all of the work I had put into it finally paying off.
And that is where I am currently at! I still have to manually load the KOH, but I am building a unit to do just that all automatically. This will give my processor the ability to run 24/7 with no human intervention needed. My machine will be able to run until I run out of chemicals or oil. This should be done and installed by the beginning of July 2010. I also plan on making a new video demonstrating the automation very soon, so keep an eye out for that. Please subscribe to my email list and be notified when I post any new information. I post new content one a week. Also, I would love to any of your comments so please post them! Please visit the contact me page if you want to contact me personally.