South African-made biodiesel equipment

fpabiodieselcentremdplant.jpgBiodiesel Centre in Bellville, Western Cape, founded by Neville Murray, is probably the leading supplier of biodiesel fuel in South Africa currently. It also supplies equipment for biodiesel production and is looking for partners in biodiesel projects in the rest of Africa. Biodiesel Centre is well known in South Africa for supplying biodiesel for the 5% biodiesel blend (95% is mineral diesel) used in trucks distributing for Woolworths, South Africa’s most upmarket food retailer.
Biodiesel Centre’s first plant, in Bellville, produces 80,000-100,000 litres per month from six batch reactors. Murray is currently setting up a similar-capacity facility, with six reactors, in Johannesburg. Another similar facility will also be set up in Durban before year-end, he says.
All of these plants produce biodiesel entirely from spent oil, which Biodiesel Centre buys from fast-food outlets, food manufacturers, etc.
All participants in the South African biodiesel industry agree that spent oil is the only economic feedstock for biodiesel in South Africa currently – given prevailing prices of oilseeds and mineral diesel.
A biodiesel production unit operating from spent oil has the potential to employ large numbers of people. For instance, Biodiesel Centre’s Bellville facility uses a supply chain of 80 people collecting spent oil in small trucks.
There are now a large number of suppliers of equipment to aspirant producers of biodiesel – but there is also a high failure rate among small biodiesel producers.
Murray says: "The selection of the equipment is the most important single decision in a biodiesel project. Be very selective – if you get the right equipment it will not be difficult to produce quality, up-to-specification biodiesel."
"The acid test of what equipment you should buy is: ‘Has the supplier, for himself or for his customers, already made a lot of biodiesel?’
"You need a diesel maker, not an engineer or other expert. He must show that he has made a lot of diesel which has worked and is of quality!"
The most important part of the biodiesel plant is the reactor which splits the triglycerides and the glycerol. Many small plant suppliers do not get this right, he says.
Murray agrees that producing biodiesel is a learning process for both the producer and the customers – which is one reason why he prefers joint ventures to simply selling equipment.
For instance, biodiesel becomes somewhat viscous in winter without additives. This puts pressure on the injector pumps which may be damaging to them and decrease efficiency.
This "pour point" problem exists throughout the international biodiesel industry. Biodiesel Centre solves it with a winterisation element which is part of a standard diesel conditioner which it adds into its final product. But anyone using biodiesel needs to be aware of this problem, says Murray.
He says that African producers should use technology made in South Africa. Overseas technology is often four times more expensive ex-factory and not as suitable for local conditions because it has automation and controls which are not needed or wanted in African production situations, particularly in batch production. He believes that a batch process is likely to be more practicable than a continuous process in most situations in Africa.
He says Biodiesel Centre can supply turnkey equipment for about $44,000 ex-factory – "which will not require overseas technicians to be flown out to solve any problem". Such turnkey equipment consists of one reactor and supporting tanks and refining systems with capacity to produce 60,000 litres of biodiesel per month.
A unit of this size could be run by three unskilled people – even monitoring does not have to be done by an engineer.
Standard of biodiesel
Murray says the biodiesel produced by his facility meets the US’s ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, which are realistic for biodiesel produced from spent oil.
But Biodiesel Centre’s practical external validation is that it has, for the past two years, been selling biodiesel to major South African companies for both 5% and 20% blends, with no operating problems experienced. Also, Biodiesel Centre’s own fleet uses up to 100% biodiesel.
While in South Africa the biodiesel industry is not sustainable on any other feedstock than spent oil, the same often does not apply in the rest of Africa.
There, the availability of two resources – rainfall of over 1,200mm/year and unused agricultural land – is not so scarce as in South Africa. There, it is often viable to use virgin oils for biodiesel making. ”Hence the rapid expansion of oilseed plantings, especially jatropha, which has happened in many countries in the past 18 months," he says.
For instance, he says, soy and other oilseeds can be used – if the local mineral diesel price is above $1.50/litre – by:

  • Farmers of all oilseeds, who can cut out the middleman if they have operations of scale.
  • Existing edible oil processors who have low-grade by-products.
  • Growers of jatropha.
  • Growers of moringa (from India) which can gain supplementary income streams as a food and as a medicinal product (more about this in our subsequent editions).

Biodiesel Centre: Tel +27-21-949-2369 or +27-83-225-7339; neville@biodieselcentre.co.za ; website: www.biodieselcentre.co.za