Catilin Inc. anticipates that the promise of lower operating costs, ease of use and safety will overcome the challenges of introducing its T300 solid catalyst that sidesteps the need for a fixed bed to the biodiesel industry. In the difficult economy coming up with investment capital is a serious matter.  But look at what is being offered.

According to Dave Sams, Catilin’s Vice President of Business Development, the T300 differs from most solid catalysts that require a fixed bed and high temperature or pressure to operate, saying correctly, “Inside a reactive vessel they put a plate with a mesh. The catalyst is stacked on top of that mesh and the oil flows through.” In the oil refining business this is common yet needs highly skilled engineers to monitor the process. The systems also require reactors designed for the higher temperatures and pressures necessary for the fixed bed catalysts to work efficiently – a costly retrofit that has largely discouraged the biodiesel industry from adopting solid catalysts.   This is major financial issue for biodiesel.

Sams describes the T300 as a ‘drop-in catalyst’ that can be used as a direct replacement for the commonly used sodium methoxide catalysts explaining,  “We don’t need a fixed bed because we mix in the granular powder directly with the oil,” The heterogeneous catalyst remains solid, and performs much the same way as the familiar homogeneous catalysts that are liquids in solution. The catalytic activity is similar to sodium methoxide, with a residence time of 40 to 60 minutes.

Larry Lenhart, Catilin’s CEO.says, “Our solid catalyst makes it so much easier. It’s safe and nontoxic, and it requires less expense to run. You don’t need to do the mixtures with acids and pH balance, and you can eliminate water washing. With fewer steps, potentially 30 percent of the equipment in a standard biodiesel plant can be eliminated.”  That’s a heads up to finance and investment people.

Catilin Process Flow Diagram for the T300 System.  Click image for the largest view.

Catilin Process Flow Diagram for the T300 System. Click image for the largest view.

Another improvement in the cost structure is in the catalyst removal once reactions are complete. Sams explains, “Typically in a plant, they splash water on the biodiesel to wash out the sodium catalyst so the biodiesel is clean. Because we have a solid catalyst, we don’t need to do that. We use a sophisticated filter to keep the catalyst in the reactor and let the products leave the reactor without any of the catalyst in it. That means people can use a dry wash, which is more economical.”

Also the T300 catalyst is nontoxic, has a long life and can be easily disposed when it is spent, Sams estimates the cost of retrofitting a 30 MMgy plant to switch to the Catilin catalyst would range between $300,000 and $600,000, depending on plant configuration. Initial discussions with potential customers are showing a payback period for the capital investment of about 12 months. The T300 catalyst itself is priced competitively with sodium methoxide.

This is critical to the whole biodiesel cost structure.  The retrofit to use the T300 solid catalyst involves the addition of a hopper and injection system to introduce the catalyst, and a filter to separate the catalyst from the biodiesel and glycerin products. Both components already exist and are off-the-shelf technologies.  Sams explains, “The big designers have historically recommended water wash systems.  They’ve had to use water wash because the sodium methoxide they’ve used as the catalyst has to be removed down to 5 parts per million or less in the biodiesel and the water wash does a very good job of that. Those systems are typically expensive to operate because they require a big distillation column. There’s a lot of energy required and if you get in places where water is in tight supply, it becomes a real problem.”  More accurately said, biodiesel is still much too expensive and big costs are in the process costs.  That drives down the prices of the feedstock and puts excessive pressure on the product sales.  Margins can be dreadful.

Catilin is packed full of high skills.  Victor Lin, the leading example, who serves as chief technologist at Catilin, also continues in his joint appointments as an Iowa State University professor of chemistry, and as program director of chemicals and biological sciences at the U.S. DOE Ames Laboratory.  His work is being commercialized through Catilin, which is partly owned by ISU with the backing of two California-based venture capitalist firms, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Leader Ventures. Lenhart and Sams, both of whom come to Catilin with experience in venture-backed development, are based in San Francisco. The rest of the Catilin team is in Ames, Iowa.

Catilin's Yang Cal.  Click image for more info.

Catilin's Yang Cal. Click image for more info.

Now look at this, the company has manufactured enough of this catalyst, which is based on a nontoxic, common mineral, to supply several large biodiesel plants for one year and Catilin’s pilot plant where the T300 catalyst validation work is being conducted currently utilizes soy oil as feedstock.  That leaves the other majors oils like peanut, palm, cottonseed, and the coming jatropha and algae oils.  One supposes the catalyst will work with some modification.

This is a major change in biodiesel plant design.  A giant savings in energy inputs and simply, it’s much cleaner and saves a lot of water.  Newsie types have bemoaned much of bio fuel’s potential due to the water, food crop and energy inputs for years.  Catilin looks to have handed them an exit pass.

Now this Lin fellow is quite something.  He’s also working on algae issues that beg to be discussed, but have just been funded, so it’s still theoretical.  He not only has a bunch of catalyst to sell, and a compelling case to make in using it, he’s just gotten a pile of grant money to sort the oils of algae into processable types, solving another bugaboo in the algae industry.  But that development will have to wait for some results.

Meanwhile, biodiesel direct from vegetable oils has just gotten much simpler and cheaper which should see rapid adoption to benefit processors, suppliers and consumers.


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