VFT’s Fiber Reactor technology is featured on the front page of the 2020 Winter Biodiesel Magazine. Within this issue, industry-leading writer/editor Ron Kotrba wrote the following spotlight article in the Innovations in Biodiesel Technology section:
Surface area is critical for fast, complete chemical reactions. When novel fiber reactor technology to drastically increase surface area is combined with that same approach to pretreat feedstock in a small, skid-mounted unit, the outcome is a remarkable new approach to biodiesel manufacturing. Add a midstream water-wash step and the result is Visionary Fiber Technologies Inc.’s Fiber Reactor Technology.
The idea was initially developed by a retired professor from Texas State University to investigate how the mass transfer characteristics of transesterification could be enhanced by greater surface area. The concept is to pack thousands of hair-width strands of stainless-steel fibers in a reactor to create thin ribbons of interstitial space within which reaction occurs. VFT, through its affiliates, now owns this patent portfolio and has global rights for commercializing this technology.
Andrew Horvath, VFT’s chief operating officer, says the first step is to flood the fiber reactor separator with water, alcohol and caustic. “A reservoir of this aqueous solution is on top of the reactor, so the tips of the fibers are always wetted,” he says. “From underneath we inject the organic phase.” Surface tension binds the aqueous solution to the fibers as oil pushes the fluid through the interstitial space, Horvath explains. “As the oil moves down, neutralization of the free fatty acids (FFA) occurs, turning them into soap,” he says. “The soap migrates to the bottom with the aqueous phase.” This step can reduce FFA content of distillers corn oil (DCO) from 15 percent to less than 0.5 percent. After FFA removal, the oil is sent to the second reactor for water-washing. The clean oil now flows into the third reactor for transesterification via VFT’s technology.
Horvath says VFT’s skids are perfect for ethanol producers seeking to co-locate biodiesel production on-site. One reason is the ability to use ethanol instead of methanol in transesterification. “When other technologies use ethanol, it creates more problems than solutions,” Horvath says. “The physics in our technology allows producers to leverage what ethanol can do for them.”
Ethanol plants have mole sieves, evaporation and distillation systems to break the azeotrope and recover water-free ethanol from product streams. Unlike others wishing to use ethanol for biodiesel manufacturing, ethanol producers can avoid tax implications with denaturant-free ethanol since it’s made on-site. Furthermore, the footprint is small: One skid is 5’x5’x10’. Three of these in a series are estimated to produce 5 MMgy or more of biodiesel from DCO, also produced on-site. In addition, the carotenoid-rich FFA stream stripped from the DCO feedstock can be added to the distillers grains for a nutrient-rich, higher-priced variety. Fuel performance of fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE) is better than fatty acid methyl esters, Horvath says. “It has higher cetane, better cold flow and pourability characteristics,” he says. In addition, VFT’s biodiesel production skids have inherently low capex costs, ranging from 50 cents to $2 per gallon installed capacity depending on size and existing infrastructure, Horvath says, adding that the low-temperature, low-pressure process employs little energy—meaning lower variable production costs. Finally, he says FAEE produced via VFT’s skids have a low carbon-intensity score, which producers can parlay into cash in markets like California.
VFT has been working closely with industry players and has high hopes for deploying its technology in biodiesel production. “Its application in the biodiesel industry, specifically with ethanol plants becoming true biorefineries, is a beautiful thing,” Horvath says.