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....

August 26, 2006

Success and a Wrap-Up!

The Completed Reactor a.k.a. "My Baby"

The reactor is complete. We piped the pieces, made the misting system, assembled the aeration pipes, and plugged in the prototype. After adding some alliteration, we decided to give it a try, the moment I’ve been waiting for for the last 6 months.

We ended up making two test batches of biodiesel, or a total of 140 liters. The first batch didn’t turn out as well as the second – that’s because we had to fix some major design issues of the reactor in order to make sure oil didn’t leak from the top of the reactor tank. Basically, the 1 HP pump shot oil all over the place; especially when the oil is heated to 50 C so it less viscous. We’d turn on the circulation pump and oil (and methoxide) sprayed onto the top and then leaked out of the sides, dripping down the reactor and splattering all over the place. We installed an elbow inside the tank to direct the oil down instead of sideways, and the problem was solved for the second batch.

The Reactor Version 2.0, with the Elbow Addition

The second batch created worked great – the added elbow and tightened hose barbs worked wonders. The elbow had one side effect positive side effect - it increased the temperature of the reactor, as the pump had to work much harder to shoot the oil into more oil that it did launching it through the air. While it may not be the best for the pump, it’s a great thing for the reaction because it keeps it nice and hot for the 80 minute reaction time. The resulting fuel was really clear even before we water washed the fuel; a good sign that we’ve got a good reactor with lots of circulation and mixing.

P'Meck and I Adding Methoxide into the Reactor

We also had a great time working with the PDA staff; and I also got an intense workout for my scanty vocabulary. We made the biodiesel and constructed the project hand in hand with the staff, to make sure that when I’m long gone from the center the biodiesel brew can still be flowing. There were three staff members who worked beside us the whole time: P’Sut, the resident Mr.-Fix-It, P’Meck, the pimping technician who had a girl on the phone at all times of the day, and P’Ohh, the chemistry expert. I also finished a big 20 pager-report, took lots of pictures, and enjoyed life in the Krabi countryside, far away from the bleeping horns of Bangkok.

The Infamous Som Thom Buu Blrahh and Other Delicious Foods

We also ate some great homemade Thai food – in the past I didn’t like the Southern style Gang Som curry, but now I can’t get enough of it! I got to know the lighter side of construction in Thailand when P’Sut couldn’t stop using flames for everything. We met some great friends that I feel really happy passing my biodiesel baby into the hands of – they are hardworking people striving to change things for the better.

So with this I conclude my work in the first year of the biodiesel project at Krabi. So much more needs to be done – further refining the fuel washing stages, simpler fuel filtering systems (continuous flow), forming a villager coop, and using even cheaper types of oils to make biodiesel. I hope that the PDA continues it with the passion that I saw put forth by everyone at Krabi.

The PDA Krabi Biodiesel Team

To everyone who’s helped me with this project, thanks, and a phatty Kawpkoon Krap.

August 16, 2006

Frantic Construction

Constructing the Oil Storage Tank beside the Reactor

After spending a great weekend in Phuket, visiting beautiful beaches, big energy generating windmills (my next project?!?), and getting the strangest sunburns I've ever had, Jordan and I hopped on a bus to Krabi on Monday afternoon. Monday was a holiday; the celebration of the Queens birthday and Thai Mother's Day, but our reactor and all the parts were expected to arrive sometime Monday evening. We got off the bus at Ban Tung, aka the middle of nowhere, a dry dustball town which looks like the Wild West. After getting a delicious fried rice pork, a beer Chang (kuat yai), and an ice cream from the motorcycle ice cream lady, we hitched a ride on the song taow and were dropped off in front of the PDA Center.
Immediately after we dropped off our backpacks at the center we turned around and a huge van filled to the brim with stuff pulled up. We hopped in the back and drove up to the hong het, or mushroom room, the temporary area where we're setting up shop. Sure enough, everything came from Bangkok. The reactor, the wash tanks, chemicals, my suitcase with random stuff, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Mmm... Screwing Steel Threads into Plastic Pipe....

We got to work. Plumbing, gluing, testing, raising tanks, lowering standards, getting stuff done. We've been working the last two days, and despite a few hangups everything's going relatively smoothly. Today we finished the core plumbing assembly, the water misters in the wash tanks, and the air bubbler system. Basically, we're done installing the parts and pieces and we're now in the tweaking phase. This is the fun part I’ve been planning for for 6 months.
We'll make our first batch of biodiesel tomorrow. We have 200 liters of oil, 200 liters of methanol, and 25 kg of KOH. We'll set up our titration

supplies and lab equipmet, make a batch, and then continue writing a report which explains it all. We've been working with two awesome workers here on the PDA staff; Khun Suh, the resident pyromaniac who believes the solution to everything is a little fai, and Khun Mack, aka Mackdaddy, the engineer who gets his hands dirty but chats to his girlfriend at all times while doing work. We've got a good team here.

Jordan Playing in an Grot Bat Acid-Bath

One little rant before I sign off tonight. So we needed acid to clean the pipes. The Thai word for acid is grot. For the last 3 weeks I've been asking for grot at every hardware store and I always get a wide eyed looked and a “no way, go to a chemical supply store” response. I don’t need any crazy acid, just muriatic acid, which is common worldwide at general hardware stores. I asked a PDA staff member where to buy acid, and I got the normal “no way, they don’t have any in Krabi” response. Ten minutes later, I was in a hardware store and found battery acid, or grot bat. We looked at the battery acid, and I decided to get it, used it and it did the job well. Then Far (my girlfriend) called and I asked her what muriatic acid is in Thai, and she said grot glua, or acid salt. Just because I was interested, I asked the PDA staff member if he had grot glua, and he replied yeah, or course I do. And we could buy it in 25 kg quantities at the regular old hardware store…? So before, when I ask for acid, I get a no way response. But if I ask for battery acid or muriatic acid, I can get it at any local hardware stores. Why didn’t I get that response in the first place?!? Ohh well, all is done and it’s all worked out beautiful. Tomorrow if the batch is successful then I’ll really feel like it’s been a job well done. Then on to Bangkok for that beer I promised myself a few weeks ago….

August 11, 2006

Awaiting the Arrival of the Machine...

Krabi Town and Peaks

I’m down in Krabi again with a friend from Chapel Hill, Jordan Shakelford, and the countdown has begun. We’re busy getting the site ready, buying carts, barrels, water jugs, and all those things which I have no idea how to explain in Thai. When we go shopping I’m constantly playing a game of Pictionary: 1 word, red, electricity, looks like this. Amazingly, we generally find with we need, although we are both tired from trying to understand what the other person is trying to say [we in this case is the PDA driver P’Mak, who helps me find exactly what I need]

So here’s an instance where I wish I spoke Thai better; throughout the planning period for this project when I was in the US I was told that there were plenty of buildings in the PDA Krabi Center where the biodiesel reactor could be stored. Naturally, I didn’t include a storage facility in my proposed budget, and sent this budget to the PDA. When I arrived in Krabi, I found in fact that there was no building ready and that I should construct a building. I drew up a building plan (never done that before), submitted it, and then allocated $500 of my money, money I was supposed to keep, but instead give it to the PDA to help purchase the building. A contractor came and found that the building would cost upwards of $4000, well beyond the budget of my grant (and almost 2x the cost of the biodiesel infrastructure!) Now people believe that I went over budget, but I never had a building in my proposed plan in the first place! Hopefully PDA will use their funds to help support the building project, for now we'll be testing and construcing beside the mushroom building.

View of a Phuket Roof

This is a three day weekend, in celebration of the Queens Birthday on Monday the 12th. I’m finally getting my first bai tiaow (vacation) trip outside of Bangkok. I’ll be going to Phuket with some friends, hopefully getting my pasty butt into the water to get a tan and maybe even some sea kayaking. Relaxation, sun, sand, tourists, and expensive prices- I can’t wait….

But on the night of the 12th the biodiesel reactor and custom built tanks will arrive at the Krabi field site. Jordan and I will probably pull an all-nighter to assemble all the precious parts of pieces of the reactor, so it will be ready to use on Tuesday morning. At that point we should have 200 liters of refined palm oil shipped to us for testing. How’d we get this oil you ask?!? Khun Mechai, chairman of the PDA, happens to be the chairman of the board of directors of a palm oil company. So we get palm oil, and lots of it, for really cheap.

We’re also in the process of making a big instructions/user guide for the biodiesel reactor. We’ve made a hefty users guide, the field manual version, drawings and explanations for biodiesel basics, material compatibility guides, economic forecasts, schedules for producing biodiesel, and even pictures for the manual. It’s a big undertaking, but I feel like we should be done by the time we leave the Krabi center. The whole time we’ll be partnering with the resident technician, P’Mak, so the knowledge we share will be known to PDA long after I leave the country.

Am I excited? Yes. Am I worried? Nitnoi (a little). But I can’t wait for Monday for the real fun to begin. I’m counting down the days….

August 05, 2006

A Reactor and a Kink in the Plans….

The intimidating reactor picture

So the reactor is finished, and delivered to PDA Bangkok. For the measly cost of 45,000 Baht ($1100), we got a beautiful 120 liter stainless steel biodiesel reactor. This comes complete with a 35 liter stainless methoxide mixer, a 1 HP circulation pump, a sexy control panel, and Japenese blender motors ghetto rigged for mixing tubines in the reactor. Sleek? Yes. Sexy? Ohh yeah…. Quite a beauty in my book. Big thanks to PlanEnergy Thailand and Khun Sitthichai for all their help in putting together and making the reactor. I’ve taken everyone in the office to see it and they all agree it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve seen in a long time. Now we just have to ship it to Krabi….

The fabled conical bottomed tanks

In addition, we ordered some conical bottomed plastic tanks to store the oil and also to wash the biodiesel. We got a great deal, about $100 each, including stands, back stateside these tanks cost up to $300 not including stands. There’s just one catch- they have to make them. We can’t just buy then and pick them up off the lot, they’re custom made on an order-by-order basis, and they take around a week to make. This poses a bit of a problem. Let’s see my timeline: today is August 5th. The tanks will be made and delivered to PDA Bangkok by the 11th. That weekend is a big holiday (the Queen’s birthday, slash Thai Mother’s Day) so there’s a long weekend and everyone relaxes. They earliest they can get to Krabi is the 15th. I promised to go see Far (my girlfriend) on the 19th; she's in a countrywide environmental debate where she’s competing with the best students at the best colleges in Thailand. I leave to go home August 23rd. So we’ve got 3 days (and nights… long long nights) to build, test, and make a batch of biodiesel. 3 days.

So the good news. PDA is all for it and promised we’d have backup to help. A friend of mine from the UNC CEP Thailand program, Jordan Shakleford, will be my wingman while in Krabi helping to piece everything together. We’re going down a few days early to make sure everything’s in order, and hopefully do a little pre-assembly. I’ve almost bought all the parts I need, and we’ll be up and running. We might night be getting our 8 hours of beauty sleep, but the reactor will be buit and tested. Keep those fingers crossed for me….