The nation's largest refinery of biodiesel fuel is rapidly approaching completion at the Port of Grays Harbor in Southwest Washington — and not a moment too soon.
With the prices of petroleum-based fuels climbing well past $3 per gallon and concerns about their effects on the environment spiraling upward as well, Seattle-based Imperium Renewables expects to begin producing fuel at its Grays Harbor refinery this year. The $65-million facility will be capable of producing 100 million gallons of biodiesel per year, said Sid Watts, Imperium's general manager — plant operations.
First, a little background about biodiesel: According to Energy Business Reports, the term biodiesel refers to a diesel-equivalent, processed fuel derived from biological sources such as vegetable oils, etc; which can be used in unmodified diesel engine vehicles. The concept of using vegetable oil as a fuel dates back to 1895, when Dr. Rudolf Diesel developed the first diesel engine to run on vegetable oil.
Commercial production of biodiesel in the United States began in the 1990s. The National Biodiesel Board reported production of 500,000 gallons in 1999 and 75 million gallons in 2005. The most common sources of oil for biodiesel production in the United States are soybean oil and yellow grease (mostly recycled cooking oil from restaurants).
Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called "transesterification" in which the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products — methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a valuable byproduct that can be sold for use in soaps and other products).
Imperium Renewables Inc. was founded as Seattle Biodiesel LLC in late 2003 by John Plaza to commercialize his new design for biodiesel refining. Saybr Contractors Inc., a Northwest petroleum facility contractor, entered into a joint venture to construct the first commercial implementation of this biodiesel refinery technology in Seattle in 2004. The refinery opened for business in early 2005 with a yearly capacity of 5 million gallons per year.
Imperium took the next step in May 2006, when it announced plans to build the much bigger Grays Harbor plant. The site was chosen for its location, close to sea and rail shipping connections, as well as other amenities it offered, Watts said. Raw materials for producing biodiesel there include both vegetable oil transported by rail from Iowa and palm oil shipped by sea from Southeast Asia.
Lessons learned during construction of the Seattle plant have been a great help since work began on the Grays Harbor facility last July, said Eric Martin of Saybr Contractors, site representative for the owner.
The primary lesson: "Put a plan together before you start," Martin advised.
Supporting that view was Steve Drennan, director of engineering services for Imperium.
"You learn as much from the positives as from the negatives," Drennan said. "It was great to start with a small project" (before starting this one).
The current project involves building a production facility measuring 100 feet by 300 feet, a tank farm with eight storage tanks of 2 million gallons capacity apiece and a railroad yard plus making minor improvements to two marine terminals.
J.H. Kelly Co., based in Longview, Wash., is serving as general contractor. The company, which is highly experienced in refinery construction, is self-performing concrete placement, structural steel erection, mechanical work, and equipment setting, said Steve Dahl, senior project manager.
The 12.86-acre site required quite a bit of preparation work, because it consisted of materials dredged from the harbor channel and placed there as fill in the 1980s. Drennan said it was necessary to excavate and backfill with 6-inch rock to stabilize the site, but the process was effective because it allowed crews to work throughout the winter despite record rainfalls during the period.
To support the storage tanks, 2,373 grout-driven piles, 16 inches in diameter and 70 feet to 75 feet deep, were placed in the tank farm area.
Atop the piles were built 3-foot-thick concrete pads for each of the tanks, which measure 80 feet in diameter and 60 feet tall. The pads, placed in monolithic pours, required 100 deliveries by 10-cubic-yard-capacity concrete trucks. To minimize the impact of the deliveries on both local traffic and also on other projects requiring concrete in the community, this work was done during the weekend, Drennan said.
Winter weather also posed a big challenge during erection of the storage tanks. Supplier T Bailey Inc. rolled and painted the steel pieces of the tanks at its Anacortes, Wash., plant and shipped them to Grays Harbor with just-in-time delivery for its erection crew.
Drennan described the erection scheme as "shell plate by shell plate, one course at a time."
"Flying big sheets of metal in the wind has been difficult," he added. "We had several stoppages during bad weather, and it's pretty impressive that we have stayed on schedule."
At one point during the winter, a big storm blew in from the Pacific while four of the tanks were under construction. The workers were able to stake out three of the tanks before the storm hit, but the fourth one, which was at 60 percent of full height, collapsed in the wind. They were able to pull the pieces back out into proper shape with only a short time delay, however, and the project proceeded.
Though Imperium is constructing several buildings on the site, the actual processing equipment, which is of a proprietary design, will sit outside on a 2-foot-thick slab that measures 50 feet by 60 feet. The buildings are an operations control center, built of CMU block; and a prefabricated "polishing" building, where the finished product will receive a final filtering to remove trace impurities. Also, a 25-foot-tall cooling tower will serve the facility.
"We don't have a whole lot of cooling needs for our process," Drennan explained.
The rail yard consists of four parallel tracks, 4,500 feet in length and capable of accommodating a 90-car unit train. A separate track is dedicated to handling hazardous materials.
The plant is designed so that any of the tanks can hold either raw material or finished products — as long as they are cleaned before switching for one to the other, Watts said.
Not surprisingly, a maze of piping connects the eight main tanks and two smaller swing tanks. In all, there are 45,000 linear feet of piping, from short runs of 48-inch-diameter to the main lines of 16 inches and smaller, said J.H. Kelly's Steve Dahl.
A key element in the success of the project that comes up repeatedly when discussing it with the builders is the strong support they have received from the Grays Harbor communities.
"The cool story here is that we have used a lot of local industry here to build this plant," said Imperium's Drennan. "It's a great community and statewide effort. And it's a quality job."