U.S. Navy biodiesel project nears completion

By Lisa Gibson
Posted April 15, 2010, at 11:58 a.m. CST

The first ARIES biodiesel production system was delivered to U.S. Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif., for the final phase of a collaboration on its development.

The Navy, Biodiesel Industries Inc. and Aerojet Inc., a world aerospace and defense leader, formed a cooperative research and development agreement to build a process that would make ASTM-quality biodiesel using local sources and it seems they have succeeded with ARIES (automated, real-time, remote, integrated energy system). The unit delivered to the base is a commercial-scale system and will be run through demonstrations for a final validation of the process.

ARIES is equipped with a new and revolutionary element: remote control technologies that provide real-time sensing and management of key chemistry and processing parameters. The tools were developed by Aerojet, the same company that developed remote sensing and automated technology that sent man to the moon.

Real-time sensing can eliminate lengthy testing steps such as transesterification, which can take up to 1.5 hours, according to Russell Teall, Biodiesel Industries founder and CEO. When the reaction can be seen as it's happening, those tests become unnecessary. "It's a major advancement," he said. "It's the first time that sort of technology has been applied to biodiesel. It speeds things up by a factor of two." The system includes stop points where it will show readings, asking if the operator would like to proceed with the reaction.

The system also monitors the feedstock characteristics in real time. It can take several kinds of feedstocks including yellow grease, animal fat, energy crops, waste agricultural products and more. Not only that, but they can be mixed together. "You have to know what sort of characteristics the feedstock has," Teall said. "Separating is burdensome, but ARIES can mix them up and tell you what the characteristics are on the fly." The system will also recommend the best formula for the process with those particular feedstocks, leaving less room for operator error. The best feedstock mix depends on the location and climate. Teall cautions dependence on one feedstock can be unsustainable and vertical integration is crucial.

The Navy will make good use of the remote-controlled system, as it has identified 20 locations for the initial rollout, Teall said, adding that he doesn't know a timeline for their establishment. The Navy has an obligation to meet between 20 percent and 50 percent of its energy needs internally by 2012. "So it's going to be a fairly rapid rollout," he said. The Navy's immense consumption of fuel prompted the seven-year project, which began in 2003. "They're the largest user of biodiesel in the world and it's important they have access to their fuel," Teall said.

The integrated energy system makes ARIES applicable to non-Navy endeavors, as well. The system produces about eight times more power and heat than it needs for its own processes. "In the international market, there's a huge need in rural communities to create income and businesses that don't exist right now," Teall said. He cites India, where about 150,000 villages are without electricity. "It becomes a very efficient source of local heat."