Met-Chohm-Phuu (Appleseed) Biodiesel in Thailand

Creating Appleseed Biodiesel reactors in Thailand in rural areas for farmers with the PDA.... stories from a farang in Krabi... biodiesel back home in NC... and whatever else needs to be told online in my blog....

July 26, 2006

What’s Going On…

Okay, so I’ve been in Thailand for 18 days now, and what do I have to show for it? Some new clothes, a fatter stomach, a big stack of papers, phone numbers, and random parts scattered about the office. I’m still in the “part allocation phase,” aka trying to find all these random odds and ends that tourists would never even consider buying. I visited a lab supply store to buy beakers and graduated cylinders, and it was quite an event. I’ve visited hardware stores, including the largest HomePro in Thailand. It was an interesting; there were at list 50 people who were working at the store, and maybe 10 customers. So when I walked in the door, I was instantly I was bombarded by 5 workers all asking me what I wanted (smells like commission?) In my broken Thai, I say bpump (for a pump), and kaw duu krap (I just want to look around). I finally lost them at the gardening section.

The future site of the biodiesel prcoessing facility

I’m in Krabi now, getting the site ready for biodiesel production. It’s a really pretty center (check out the pics), and the reactor will be built on a concrete floor under a thatch roof, with plenty of ventilation (a very good thing when working with methanol). I’m having the most difficulty finding big plastic tanks, 300 liter PE conical bottom, if anyone knows any contractors or plastic tank salesmen in Thailand (other than Mrs Janie), please let me know. Everyone’s got one of those friends right, the tank salesmen in the foreign country? Yeah, I thought so.

Ohh, in other big news, I ordered a biodiesel reactor. A former employee of PDA now is a salesmen for renewable energy components such as biodiesel reactors, microhyrdoelectric systems, and solar panels. He gave the PDA a special discount, and using his sources, we purchased a 120 liter stainless steel reactor. It’s not big by the US means (I visited 200 liter reactors in NC), but you can make four batches a day, 400 liters, or about 100 gallons. Not bad by any means. I’ll be doing all the assembly, but luckily the company will find all the hard to get parts (other than those blasted tanks).

So here’s the new timeline:

  • This week, stay in Krabi and get the site ready, write the manual
  • Next week, back in Bangkok, get all the final odds and ends
  • Monday, August 7th, road trip to PDA Krabi
  • August 8-16, construction
  • August 16-21, testing
  • August 22-23, return to Bangkok and have a beer.

Do-able? Lets hope so.

A Geography Lesson

Krabi, Thailand

I was poking around on Google Earth the other day, trying to find out where exactly I was in Thailand. Right now I’m in Krabi Thailand, where the biodiesel reactor will be built. Krabi is a hop, skip, and a jump away from all the big tourist hubs on the beaches down south; Ao Nang, Railey (rock climbing), Phuket, and Koh Phi Phi are all within 50 km away from here. We’re a bit more inland, as you can see by the map, but it’s only 20 km from the beach. PDA helps villages all over this area, on a map here at work there are little dots scattered all over the map where PDA has a project in the area.

To give you an ideal of the scale of the PDA, they currently employ of 1,000 people. There are at least 10,000 volunteers. They have programs in over 11,000 villages. Imagine that. 11,000 villages. That’s really big. In each province which PDA operates, there is a hub center. The center in that province assesses what is needed in the villages close-by, reports to the Bangkok master center, and then does whatever can be done to help. Pure bottom up. No top down. Very excellent. (Apparently for this biodiesel project, fisherman complained that a huge percentage of their income went to purchasing diesel fuel. Hopefully, this will be an alternative).

Bangkok, Thailand

I also made a map of my life in Bangkok; when I’m in Bangkok I’m staying at my friends apartment (called “Joey’s Apartment”) and work at the PDA center. It’s not too far away, but it’d take hours to get there by the road (traffic is always rot dtik, or traffic jam, in BKK), but by taking the SkyTrain it only takes around 20 minutes. I put all the other cool stuff I like to do on the map also. Far lives across the river around an hour away by bus. So that’s that; life in Bangkok is crowded, dirty, and metropolitan (but I’ve come to like it), and life in Krabi is… in the country.

July 25, 2006

My Hubble Bubble Alter-Ego

Allison at her finest

First, the click here for a funny article on the hookah. I thought this is how a hookah works: you put this mixture of fruit and tobacco in a ceramic bowl, cover it with tin foil, and add a charcoal. Then the charcoal burns the mixture and produces a sweet smoke mixture of tobacco and fruit flavor from the burning mixture. Apparently the shop owner of the Sinbad Hookah Restaurant in CA, has an alternate theory to how a hookah works: "It's unlike any tobacco that is smoked where tobacco actually burns into ash. By using tobacco through a hookah here, we actually don't burn tobacco, we only heat it to extract the flavor out of it. The tobacco in this case only acts as a sponge. So what it really comes down to is you're smoking sugar." Sponge? Extract the flavor? Yeah, right, and I got this biodiesel reactor to sell you in Thailand too (I’m serious about that one).

In my alter-ego life back in the US, I’ve been studying the hookah in UNC’s School of Public Health with my PI Dr. Ball and my high school intern, Lawrence Le. It’s a really fun project, we’re collecting all the crap that comes of the hookah (the science term is TPM: total particulate matter) on filters, then putting the filters in a solution to get all the nasties out. We then apply this solution in different concentrations to mutated bacteria and see their response. Generally speaking, the more nastiness, the more colonies, because if the chemicals are nasty they cause many spontaneous mutations to the bacteria’s DNA and they form large colonies. So when we apply more solution, there are more and more colonies. That is until we apply so much that the bacteria accumulate so many mutations they kill themselves and then the curve starts to drop off.

So what does this tell us? It tells us how bad each milligram of hookah smoke is for the bacteria’s health. Then we compare this to how bad cigarette smoke is. We can also compare to pipe smoke, cigar smoke, marijuana smoke, diesel smoke, biodiesel smoke (yay!), and any of the 8000 chemcials that have already been tested in this manner. That way we can get an easy relationship to the effect of “smoking the hookah for one session is the equivalent of smoking 20 ciggarettes, or smoking a marijuana joint is equal to huffing biodiesel for 5 minutes,” etc. What are the results with the hookah? As of yet, the jury’s still out. But I should know in a couple days as all we have to do is count a few thousand bacteria colonies…. I’ll keep you posted….

July 18, 2006

“Kawtawt: Phom Put Thai Mai Gang Krap” (and a sigh)

The unfortunate translation: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Thai very well (and a sigh)

Well, it turns out that all the latest blog entries were stuff that I had been meaning to do before I got to Thailand, but I never got around to it until now. I’ve been in Thailand for about 10 days now, and I’m finally starting to get back into the groove again. I’m not passing out at 7pm anymore, ohh no, back to the late 1 AM nights just like the states. I’m loving the food and now my body and stomach are up to handling it again. It’s been great seeing Nuu Far again and also all my other Thai (and CH friends). And then there’s that Thai language thing….

Thai language is hard. I really forgot about this point. I showed up here and thought I could pick it right back up, but I’ve been fumbling for the right word for virtually everything. Except food. My Thai vocab’s still flawless with food (I guess that shows what I’m really thinking about all day). But it’s just hard, the tones, the speed of understanding, and the interesting dichotomy of Thai language in society.

Here’s what usually happens. Pretend you’re Thai (or continue to be Thai). I start walking up your way, looking lost as always. Here’s what you’re thinking: okay, he’s a foreigner. A farang (literally, a guava). Obviously, the white skin, beard (yuk), and brown hair are giveaways. He wants to ask me something. Crap. Switch to English mode. Ohh wait, he’s speaking Thai! Yay! He’s got an accent, but I can deal with that. He wants to know what bus to take to the BTS Skytrain. Okay, I’ll tell him in Thai, “take the 147. But wait, that only goes part of the way and then you have to catch the 114. Or you could take the minibus over there for 5 baht more. But traffic’s really bad now, it might be best to get a motorcycle taxi.” Wait, he’s looking at me weird. I guess he doesn’t get it. I’ll slow down and tell him again. Here we go again….

And so it goes, until I get completely lost and hop on a bus and pray for the best. One of these days I need to get in a Thai class. It’s tough because if you speak a little Thai then the people get excited and friendly and speak normal Thai speed. But for me, that’s like popping a speed pill for my brain. I’m slow, but it’s fun. I’ll get it eventually. Immersion learning style.

Shapiro’s Appleseed in Few-kway-Vah-Reeh-Nah

A few weeks before arriving in Thailand, I was moving out my Chapel Hill apartment and found a couple hot water heaters that were being dumped. Old hot water heaters are the perfect containers for small biodiesel reactors! I also picked up a copy of GirlMark’s book on how to create a reactor (pretty much a big blender) from an old hot water heater. And finally, I borrowed my dad (and all his tools) for a day. With a couple trips to Lowes, we had ourselves a reactor.

The whole process wasn’t hard at all, we just removed the old immersion heaters. Then we tried (and failed) to removed the hot and cold water inlet pipes at the top (welded pipes don’t come out easily by trying to screw them) so we decided to use them instead. Next we picked up a $35 water pump from Harbor Freight tools, got a bunch of brass ball valves, and hooked the sucker up. We tested it all by hooking a hose up and seeing if we could get the pump to spray the liquid inside the top of the reactor.

Okay, so we didn’t get to make biodiesel. But at least I felt a bit more comfortable throwing a pipe wrench around and seeing how all this stuff really works, rather than in my imaginary research online land. After all, what’s a college student know about the real world anyways? I felt a lot better after a day of tinkering, and more ready to face up to what the big T-land project has to offer.

It’s no “Buddy Downs” Nuckler (in the unfortunately classic gWb accent) reactor, but it’ll get the job done. Ideally you’d add oil, heat it up with a new immersion heater. Then slowly add methoxide from a carboy above. You’d circulate all this goodness up for a few hours and then you’d have biodiesel. Pour that into a big wash tank (aka oil barrel with an aquarium pump), then fuel up your diesel car.

Ahh… if only I had a diesel. Maybe I should start looking for one before mass producing my own biodiesel…

July 17, 2006

Biodiesel 101

Well, I realized that there’s a lot of technical-jargon in my blog that makes things more complicated than they really are. So for anyone interested, here’s my best understanding of the biodiesel reaction process.
Any type of vegetable oil is composed primarily of triglycerides, which are essentially three really long carbon chains connected together by a glycerin backbone. This is very dense and thick, and will congeal when the temperature becomes too cold. Therefore, it doesn’t really work that well in diesel engines, especially when its cold outside. To compare, diesel fuel is one long chain of carbon. So biodiesel is essentially oil molecules that are chemically broken down to become similar to diesel molecules.
Here’s what happens in the biodiesel reaction. Methanol attacks the backbone of the oil and breaks it apart The backbone, glycerin, is very dense and falls to the bottom. The glycerin is then removed, and you’re left with biodiesel. Biodiesel is a long chain of carbon with a methyl ester on one side (a modified methanol). It’s pretty much the same density as diesel fuel, and although it does become solid at a higher temperature than diesel, it’s not a dramatically higher temperature. It’s safe to use in any diesel engine (as long as it’s older than the 1970’s). Biodiesel emissions are also much, much better for the environment. It can also be blended in any quantity with diesel fuel, in order to make a more cost effective, or winter safe fuel.
Simplifying slightly, a biodiesel reactor is pretty much a blender. You blend up clean, filtered, dry (no water) oil with methanol and KOH (a catalyst that speeds everything up). Heat, shake and stir, and you’ve got dirty biodiesel. Wait for things to settle, and then you drain the glycerin byproduct. Next, using water and air bubbles, you wash the biodiesel to remove all the nasty-non-biodiesel goodies. Finally, you again dewater the biodiesel, and you’re left with delicious biodiesel fuel that can be used in anything diesel. Simple as pie right?
<Credit must be given to this Iowa State webpage for their biodiesel reaction:>

July 11, 2006

The Return of Phuchit (ภูชิต) to Thailand

After 30 some odd hours of flying and waiting in airports to get on the airplanes to fly again, I made it Thailand safe and sound. Most surprisingly is the fact that all my luggage also made it to Thailand – no questions asked. What was I carrying? Well, apart from clothes and books and the regular, biodiesel supplies. If someone had opened my luggage, they would have thought one of two things a) that I was selling drugs (titration supplies I brought included plastic syringes, jewelry scales and balances, and little vials to store chemicals) or b) I was a some kind of weirdo chemist/terrorist (I also brought pressure valves, big plastic gloves, fuel filters, etc) . But since I had no problems, this makes me question how well the baggage screening system really works. Ohh well, at least I didn’t have any problems.

So it feels great to be back in Thailand. Other than checking in to see Farrah my girlfriend, I’ve been eating. And eating. And eating. Man I love Thai food so much. I also tried to stay awake for all the World Cup Games (2 am here in Thailand), which has done nothing but make my jet lag even funkier. I’ve also been watching Thai soap operas on TV (yay!) in hopes of picking up a bit more Thai, along with getting my daily dose of melodrama.

In other news, I’d like to give a big ขอบคุณครับ! or Thank You to my good friend Joey Marra. Joey’s a junior at UNC who studied last summer in Thailand and returned this year to be an English teacher at a school here. Right now he’s traveling on vacation in Malaysia, but I’m staying at his apartment. We had to beg the guard for a pass and keys to the place, and frankly I’m surprised he gave me access. In gratitude for Joey’s generous actions, I’m going to buy him a lifetime supply of mango sticky rice once he gets back.

Tomorrow I’m planning to visit the PDA headquarters and meet with Ajarn Kavi, the science advisor for the PDA. We’ll be discussing the biodiesel plan and getting down to business. After purchasing some crucial components in Bangkok, we’ll be heading down south to Krabi to get started, probably sometime next week. I can’t wait to get started.

By the way, my Thai nickname is Phuchit, which means “The Steep Mountain.” Given to me a few years back by a good friend, I’m not sure why I ended up with the name but boy do I love hearing my friends back home in the states trying to pronounce it.

Burlington Biodiesel at TS Designs

I visited one last biodiesel production Co-op in the Triangle before heading off to Thailand; in May I visited Eric Henry, President of TS Designs and biodiesel/SVO enthusiast. One a side note, my girlfriend Farrah Sangsookwow came along with me and bought some TS Designs T-shirts; she says they’re the comfiest and most broken-in-new-shirts she’s ever had. We also met Sustainable Jack- alternative fuel guru who teaches many classes at App State on related topics; two really great guys with lots of energy and interest in biofuels.

Probably the most innovative design feature of TS Design’s reactor is the pretreatment of their oil- waste vegetable oil is often full of chunky food particles and water– both of these things have to be removed before making biodiesel. So how do they do it? With a big pile of mulch. The oil is pumped into holding tanks underneath a pile of mulch. The mulch has air pumped into it, which activates the bacteria to make compost, and also generate lots of heat. Therefore, the oil inside the barrels in the pile is heated up to 140 degrees, so most of the water evaporates out over a period of a few weeks and you’re left with some nice oil for the rest of the process. They also get some nice compost every couple months. Ingenious idea for using mother nature as a heater.

The rest of the process TS Designs uses is very similar to the HKF biodiesel reactor; this makes sense because HKF uses TS Design’s old reactor. Only a few things are different. First, the methoxide is pumped directly into the main reactor tank without going through the pump first; a hole at the top of the tank allows the methoxide to come pouring through via gravity. Second, the oil is heated for the reaction to 110ºF, thus reducing the reaction time and making more methyl ester and less di and tri glycerides (aka a more complete reaction). Finally, Mangesol is used for the wash process instead of a water wash. Also, acetic acid is added to the cleaned biodiesel to remove more soaps (which precipitate out) and also stabilize the pH. All in all, a whole batch can me made in around 24 hours, so speedy batches are possible. The biodiesel is then pumped through a 2um water block filter that Eric picked up on eBay, a bit overkill but surely not a bad thing.

All in all Eric and guys at Burlington Biodiesel had their biodiesel production down to a science. They were quick, effective, and highly enthusiastic. Over the summer Sustainable Jack is teaching courses on how to make biofuels and other renewable energies. He also runs a radio show every Wednesday at 10 AM on WCOM 102.9, the local Carrboro radio station, called the Home Power Hour. Myself, Farrah, and a good friend of ours Brian Hunt were on the show in May talking about the upcoming biodiesel project in May. For a podcast, click here Also, for more info on TS Designs, click here and Burlington Biodiesel’s Coop page is here I wanted to give a big thanks to Eric Henry and Sustainable Jack for taking time out of your busy days to show us around, myself and my friends really enjoyed it.

Piedmont Biofuels Brewtour

A few weeks after the HKF visit I traveled a bit south of Chapel Hill to Piedmont Biofuels Coop in Pittsboro, NC. Every Sunday and Wednesday they give out free tours to anyone interested at 1 pm. It’s also a potluck, so bring some potato salad and enjoy the food and conversation. For $50 bucks you can be a member and bring your car by anytime to fill up with biodiesel at their locations in Pittsboro, Durham, or Carborro. You also can go to Tuesday night brewing sessions. Matt Rudolf, Executive Director of Piedmont Biofuels leads the tours.

It was a dull rainy day when we went, but we were joined by a crowd of at least 15 others, and many members of the coop where outside working in the fields (Piedmont Biofuels has also sorts of sustainable projects other than biofuels, including organic gardening, biofuel wastewater treatment, and hay-bale insulated barns). Everyone was in chipper moods and was ready to learn, Matt was glad to help.

Piedmont Biofuels collects large amounts of waste vegetable oils from local restaurants, and lets them sit for a long period of time so that the water and other wastes form layers that can be removed from the quality oil. They skim a little of the top for the floaty pieces stuck on the oil, drain the water off the bottom (water inhibits the transesterification process), and uses the good stuff in the middle.

Methanol is stored locked away in a separate shelter; a great idea when dealing with such a potentially harmful chemical. Also, they have a large crane capable of picking up heavy barrels of oil or whatever else needs to be lifted, since a 55 gallon drum of oil can way 550 lbs or more.

The methoxide mixing chamber is a HDPE cylindrical bottomed tank, where just like HKF methanol is sprayed onto a basket of KOH and dissolved. The reactor is made of stainless steel; oil is pumped in and heated to a constant 115º F. Then methanol is slowly pumped in using a TEFL pump (nearly explosion proof) and circulated for 2 hours. The increased temperature makes a much higher quality biodiesel than it would be if it wasn’t heated. The resulting biodiesel is then gravity settled to remove the glycerin and other waste products, which is placed in a compost pile to degrade naturally.

Then the crude biodiesel is pumped into another chamber. Instead of water washing, Piedmont Biofuels uses Magnesol, MgSO4, to clean up the biodiesel. Magnesol is a powder that will clump to impurities and sink to the bottom of the tank. Magnesol also absorbs any water that may be present. The Magnesol is then removed, the biodiesel is filtered down to 5 um, and Piedomont Biofuels has their finished product. Using Magnesol cuts the production time for a batch of biodiesel in half, and the Magnesol waste can then be composted and removed without creating hundreds of gallons of wastewater.

Piedmont Biofuels was a really great place to explore because everyone there is constantly conducting experiments, finding the correct ways to optimize the biodiesel production process. They also showed concerned with the whole life cycle of the process, not just the biodiesel, but all the byproducts and waste generated, and hoped to make the process as ecologically friendly as possible. I was really impressed, and Matt was a fantastic tour guide. For more information on Piedmont Biofuels, visit their open house tour or their webpage:

A big special thanks to Matt Rudolf for his friendly demeanor and vast biodiesel knowledge which he kindly shares to anyone interested.

Human Kindness Foundation Biodiesel

I piggybacked with a friend, Laura Mathys, to visit the Human Kindness Foundation’s biodiesel facilities. Located on a farm in the backcountry of Orange county (as backcountry as Orange

county gets that is), we drove through a small village of enviro-friendly south facing homes (With really large windows to passively heat and light the homes) and came upon our destination: the HKF Biodiesel reactor. The reactor is in a small barn on a hill, with the reactor itself locked inside, the methanol mixing outside under a porch for ventilation, and a big tumorous addition on one side of the barn with oil barrels facing the sun to heat them up.

The barn floor inside was a bit sticky from a oil, and smelled like a big giant frying pan from all the used oils. In one corner is a titration table, lots of lab equipment and a oily computer in the corner with a ‘biodiesel-o-matic’ spreadsheet open and ready for titrating.

We met with the uber friendly Eric (with a parrot on his shoulder), who guided us through the biodiesel production process at HKF. The most important step, titrating, was the first thing we practiced. Titration is used to make sure the chemical reaction to make biodiesel is optimized to get the highest quality fuel from the specific properties of the oil. After the right amounts of catalyst was found, a mini batch was made by tossing methanol, KOH, and oil in the proper amounts into a blender, and then blending for 15 minutes to ensure a proper reaction. If the resulting mix then forms two distinct layers within around 15 minutes (with clear biodiesel on the top and milky glycerin on the bottom), then Bam you’ve got good biodiesel and you can go on with the main reaction.

So boring details on the reactor and whatnot. The reactor was designed with the help of Burlington Biodiesel, TS Design’s Eric Henry and friends (I visited TS Designs a few months later). The methanol is mixed using a showerhead to spray methanol onto KOH powder flakes in a basket, a technique that works quite well. The resulting methoxide is then moved by gravity to slowly drip into the main reactor. The main reactor is a big HDPE cone bottomed tank, and it already has some oil which as heated passively by the sun in it. A pump is turned on which circulates the oil and then the methoxide slowly mixes in with the oil. The reaction is continuously stirred for 8 hours, a long reaction because the oil is not very hot and it takes a long time under cool temperatures for the reaction to occur. In total: 90 gallons oil + 18 gallons of methanol + 3 kg of KOH yields around 80-90 gallons of biodiesel.

Then, the oil sits in the reactor for about a day, and the resulting glycerin byproduct is drained from the bottom, and the oil is sent to an HDPE wash tank. Water is added to fill the tank up, and then the oil is bubbled using an aquarium bubbler to remove the impurities. The water is drained and the process is repeated 2 more times until the resulting biodiesel is a clear amber color. Then you’ve got some quality biodiesel.

I really enjoyed visiting HKF and learned a lot from their process. They’ve been making biodiesel for well over a year no and have had no problems with their biodiesel; they use waste vegetable oil and run biodiesel in all their local vehicles. In the long term the HKF hopes to expand and make a million gallon processor employing ex-convicts in the area as the labor. Ambitious yes, but very possible. More info on HKF and biodiesel can be found online at this lovely article: