July 15th, 2016

Working with the Pilot Plant

By Chazley Hulett

July 15, 2016

 Biodiesel_processor_photo2

The pilot-scale biodiesel processing plant

This week at the Advanced Fuels Center I was given the opportunity to work in the Pilot Plant. Pilot Plant is a general term that refers to a small industrial system (smaller than a full-scale production plant) that is used to predict the behavior or performance of an experiment or design before it is attempted on a larger scale. In our plant specifically, we produce biodiesel.


Making biodiesel in the plant requires the operator to follow a stringent set of steps. Many valves must be opened and closed in order for the plant to work appropriately. If one valve is not opened or closed correctly you could find yourself with biodiesel spilt all over the floor and that is not fun to clean up…trust me.


First the operator must pump methanol into a holding tank (the amount depends on how much biodiesel needs to be made). For the next step, oil needs to be pumped into the reactor tank. Before the reaction can proceed the operator must add a catalyst to the holding tank with the methanol in it and turn on the pump to allow the catalyst to mix and dissolve. Once the catalyst is dissolved the operator can open a few valves and allow the methanol/catalyst mixture to pump into the reactor tank containing the oil. Reacting of the mixture will last a few hours. After the reacting is done the contents in the reactor must be transferred to a settling tank to allow its different components to separate. Once it has settled for several hours the bottom part of the tank containing undesired products that can be pumped out of the tank and disposed of. After that the tank only contains the biodiesel. Lastly, the biodiesel must be washed several times with water.

The process is a little more complicated than it seems. We have a 7-page checklist that we must go over when we make biodiesel, there is a lot to remember. It is always cool to get to learn something new. Advanced Fuels Center = Opportunity.