Archive for August 2008

Turning used cooking oil into biofuels

August 27, 2008

Via Processing Talk: Rising to the challenge of meeting the demand for new eco-friendly fuels, one Spanish company, Bionor, has managed to turn used cooking oil, a potentially hazardous waste product, into biodiesel.

“If not collected, the used oil is generally thrown down drains” says Alfonso Ausin, president and CEO of Bionor. “It eventually finds its way to treatment plants, and oil is one of the most difficult products to treat and eliminate at those plants, so using spent oil to produce biodiesel is environmentally friendly to an extremely high degree”.

Ausin says the annual consumption of used cooking oil at the Bionor plant is equivalent to about 88,185 tons of oil.

Bionor is one of the few companies using used oil for biodiesel production. “There are two reasons for this,” Ausin says: “First, there is a limited supply of used oil, and not all the oil used is collected. The second reason is that it takes a far greater amount of technology and investment to produce acceptable biodiesel from used oil than from virgin oil”.

The used oil collection focuses on two main areas: the restaurant trade and the domestic sector.

Almost all Spanish restaurants have a collection system in place, but the domestic collection industry is in its infancy. The oil is collected mainly by small companies that make arrangements directly with restaurants, bars, schools, factory canteens and so on.

“We’re moving into the oil collection business”, Ausin says “so we not only purchase from other collectors but are now also engaged in the acquisition of several collection companies”.

Bionor was founded more as an environmental company than an energy company. Its original purpose was to take care of collected used cooking oil. “We had to decide what to do with it,” Ausin says: “Biodiesel was the answer, and that’s what we founded the company to do”.

Accordingly, their environmental impact is a very sensitive matter.

“First of all,” says Ausin, “this is an industry that works with environmental concerns, so we have to start by setting an example ourselves.

Major environmental impacts include, for example, the water used in the process. This water has a chemical demand for oxygen of 15,000 ppm, and before it can be discharged into the river it has to be brought down to 100, which is a major challenge.

The other two main points are reduction of water consumption by re-using water to minimise clean water intake, and process improvements to reduce our consumption of catalysts and methanol, which are both expensive and highly contaminating”.

The main challenge at the Bionor biodiesel production plant has without a doubt been to achieve acceptable biodiesel quality from the used cooking oil – a raw material that changes characteristics from day to day. “The biggest challenge is to take that permanent heterogeneity and turn it into a standard fine end product,” says  Ausin.

Bionor is currently operating two biodiesel plants in Spain (Alava) and Italy (Brescia) with a combined output of  137,750 tons. It is constructing five more plants in Spain and Brazil, which will add 990,000 tons of capacity this year.  It is also to invest US$200 million to develop at least 247,105 acres of land into jatropha plantations in the Philippines.

The project is part of Bionor’s strategy to develop plantations on biodiesel feedstocks that do not compete with the food sector or contribute to deforestation.

Color me green

August 18, 2008

The crayon company Crayola hopes to turn roughly 15 acres of its property in Forks Township, Pennsylvania, into an array of solar panels. Those panels would help power the Crayola manufacturing plant at Easton.

But the project needs to happen soon, according to Johann Scheidt of the Fotowatio Group, a Spanish energy company overseeing the project. Crayola hopes to receive the Solar Energy (Investment) Tax Credit, a federal program that would pay for 30 percent of the project. ”Without the tax credit, it’s a no-go,” Scheidt said.

According to the Allentown’s Morning Call, the local Planning Commission decided to speed up the approval process for the plant after hearing a proposal that impressed both commissioners and residents.

The program expires at the end of 2008, meaning Fotowatio wants to get to work by the middle of September. It will take about two months to complete construction of the solar panels.

Just a couple of weeks ago we echoed a story about a sizable investment ($350 million) from two groups in Fotowatio, one of them being GE Financial Services. Fotowatio has built several large solar plants in Europe, including one in Spain that’s among the largest in the world (20 MW). The one in Forks would be three megawatts.

”It’s not going to break records, but for the Northeast, it’s very significant,” Scheidt said. As a matter of fact, Gov. Rendell is very supportive of renewable energy in the state of Pennsylvania. Last July he approved a $650 million fund to spur energy conservation and efficiency and RE development.

A step closer to a next generation of solar cells

August 9, 2008

In 1997, researchers from of the Instituto de Energía Solar-IES (Solar Energy Institute) in Madrid, invented and patented the concept of intermediate band solar cells as a  way to turn more of the sun’s rays into electricity. After several attempts to develop them,  a group of researchers has revealed the capability of a new material to absorb infrared light. Their work, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, constitutes a new scientific step to reach the implementation of these solar cells.

Conventional solar cells are unable to soak up infrared; that gives them a theoretical absorption limit of just over 40% of solar energy.

In practice, they only absorb about 30%. The new material, though, can harness both visible and infrared photons, so it has a theoretical maximum efficiency of 63%, its creators say.

The performance of intermediate band solar cell (IBSC) relies on finding a way to use more of the solar spectrum. The researchers added titanium and vanadium to get a material that exhibits an intermediate band, half-full of electrons, within what -in ordinary semiconductors- constitutes the bandgap, EG.  The group of researchers was led by Perla Wahnon, from the IES, and Jose Carlos Conesa, from the Institute of Catalysis of the Spanish National Research Council. 

However, while the material’s theoretical absorption limit is 63 percent, that doesn’t mean the finished product would have that efficiency in the real world. Nevertheless, since the theoretical limit percentage is higher, you can also expect a higher real world efficiency percentage. Scientists are already working to develop solar cells made of the new material. 

The Institute of Solar Energy pursues this line of research as part of a European program to extract the most of every single photon available in the full solar spectrum. Through the Professor Antonio Luque, it is the coordinator of the FullSpectrum project, that has reached several interesting milestones and efficiency records in other areas as well, such as multijunction solar cells.