Selecting Suppliers for Global Ambitions

Biodiesel processing equipment supplier looks for automation suppliers capable of supporting equipment deployments anywhere in the world. When feedstock prices were low, being first to market was the mantra heard throughout the biofuels industry. It is a different story today, where production efficiency and flexibility now take center stage as producers contend with unpredictable feedstock pricing and availability.

By Rich Chmielewski, Siemens July 14, 2010

When feedstock prices were low, being first to market was the mantra heard throughout the biofuels industry. It is a different story today, where production efficiency and flexibility now take center stage as producers contend with unpredictable feedstock pricing and availability.

More than a decade ago, biodiesel technology pioneer Christian Fleisher, CEO of Orbitek in Tulsa, OK, understood that as the demand for renewable fuels increased, so too would the need for more cost-effective production choices. In line with his vision of making biodiesel production more efficient, in 2006 Fleisher developed the modular, skid mounted, BPU400 production system to evaluate biodiesel feedstocks, catalysts, fuel additives, and preprocessing methods.

Two years later, the prototype unit proved so successful that Fleisher decided to make it commercially available to biodiesel producers worldwide. But before going global, the existing control system on the BPU400 needed an upgrade. The controller and operator terminal were supplied by different vendors and did not provide the seamless functions he needed. There was also an issue with customer service.

“Maybe we were too small for the PLC supplier to bother with,” Fleisher recalls. “When we needed customer support from the supplier, we didn’t get it. Since we did not get the support domestically, we were not optimistic about international attention.”

Changing for a global market

After evaluating a number of options to upgrade the control system, Fleisher called nearby automation systems integrator E&I Sales to provide the controls design, assembly, testing, wiring, and programming of the unit.

“E&I understood what we wanted for the system architecture and how quickly we needed it,” Fleisher says. “Their designers also understood that we wanted to offer the BPU400 globally and that we had to make it affordable to accommodate reduced capital expenditure budgets.”

Michael Sanchez, E&I Sales technical director and control solutions business unit manager, recommended Orbitek use an integrated automation and controls vendor with products and services available around the world: Siemens. Soon Siemens was selected to provide the controls and automation system for the unit, as well as specialized input for instrument applications and software enhancements. “We believe in Siemens because it is accepted worldwide,” adds Sanchez. “From the sensors to the PLC, it offers a seamless system that gives the customer a high level of confidence.”

At the heart of the system is a Simatic S7 315 controller mounted inside a panel on the BPU400. Using Profibus, the controller is net-worked to nine Micromaster 420 variable speed drives, as well as Sitrans LC300 level capacitance sensors, three Sitrans F mass flowmeters and Sitrans P DSIII pressure transmitters. The control system also includes Sirius combination group mounted motor starters for non-speed controlled pumps, relays, VL circuit breakers, Sitop power supplies and ET 200M remote I/O (32 discrete, 40 analog in, four analog out and six relay out points).

A Simatic MP 370B touchscreen display mounted on the unit communicates with the controller via Profinet. It provides a graphical interface enabling the operator to manipulate or change process parameters. The primary screen presents a representation of the plant that lets operators enlarge any portion of the process to view the status of the pumps, drives and other devices.

“The ability to touch the screen and activate the system production sequence doesn’t diminish the need for operator training,” says Fleisher. “But it does lessen the importance of the operator knowing each step of the sequence, which reduces errors and makes the job one of support.”

Really remote diagnostics

Several layers of security provide for controlled changes, such as automatic shut-off and notification. Various alarm and maintenance screens are password protected. Remote monitoring is real-time, as is remote access for software troubleshooting, or software downloads. “The fact that you can go online and troubleshoot the BPU400 is a big selling point,” Sanchez says. “That gives us, Orbitek, and Siemens the ability to examine historical data, pinpoint the issue, and fix it anytime, anywhere in the world.”

The system controls all of the key process variables, including pressure, temperature and flow. If any of those functions go outside of the basic operating parameters the logic decides whether or not to shut the system down.

The BPU400 operates on a closed-loop, continuous-flow process and is capable of a 99.8% conversion reaction in less than one minute. Fleisher says that is the fastest in the industry, and the safest since the explosion-proof unit circulates only seven gallons of methanol at any time, compared to similar batch processes that can require more than 1,000 gallons.

The unit’s proprietary process is capable of producing 9 million gallons of biodiesel annually by reacting methanol and sodium methylate with a variety of feedstocks. The mixture is cycled through one of two patented, plug-flow reactors. After conversion, the biodiesel is routed through a waterless polishing system to ensure purity. The crude glycerin byproduct is sent to storage and the recovered methanol is recycled.

“We have the same efficiencies of very large operations, but with a small, modular system in a plug-and-play format,” says Fleisher. “As long as we can get good feedstock, chemicals, and utilities to drive the pumps and power the valves, we can be up and operating in very little time, no matter the location.”

The unit can be operated alone or in parallel with other units. Customers can start production with one unit to lower entry costs and then expand as needed by adding more units. This approach offers operating economies during maintenance and servicing. Units can be serviced one at a time, reducing production losses as compared to shutting down an entire larger system.

“The entire unit is configured and ready to go when it leaves our facility,” Fleisher says. “Also, the integrated control system and plug and play design of the unit has reduced commissioning time to a matter days. That pays off in consistency and reduced labor costs.”

Environmentally friendly and energy efficient, the closed-loop operation eliminates all emissions. Even a wastewater steam is eliminated by using a waterless polishing technology that removes any trace of production residues.

Technology with a future

In the near future, Fleisher expects to integrate the functions of the BPU400 with Siemens Simatic PCS 7 distributed control system (DCS). The conversion will retain the programming, HMI, control processor, and other control components of the existing system. The PCS 7 DCS will integrate the BPU400 automation system and devices in one platform. Orbitek will also have access to common tools for engineering, visualization and plant-wide asset and maintenance management.

“The original idea was to design the control system so we could eventually stack the units by the hundreds and communicate back to the DCS,” Sanchez says. “The skids would be nodes of a larger plant and operate independently while the PCS 7 DCS would have hierarchal control over the complete system. There will be more I/O functions. We will also be able to control the tank farm and pre- and post-processes from a central control room.”

Both Fleisher and Sanchez sum up the success of the BPU400, as well as the optimistic outlook for Orbitek, on a partnership that started in Tulsa and now reaches every corner of the globe. “As we went through the process of commercializing the unit, we found people and companies that have become very much like partners,” says Fleisher. “When we built the skid, Siemens and E&I Sales were there every step of the way, even on the weekends. These relationships have helped us identify a new market niche. It may be a large company, but Siemens focuses on the basics. They service small companies the same as large ones. It has really helped to have them standing with us as we keep our operators profitable and their equipment running.”

Rich Chmielewski is chemical marketing manager for Siemens Industry Inc.