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Reactor
There are many ways to build a biodiesel reactor. When you peruse the internet, you will find a vast array of methods from very simple and crude to highly complex and elaborate.
When I built my reactor, I had already read numerous articles on the internet about reactor design and I wasn't sure what was required versus what was a frill or extra. I thought if I searched long enough I would find something somewhere that would give me that definitive answer but I was wrong. Why? Well, my best guess is it's probably because, like I said before, there is no definitive right or wrong answer. Therefore, by definition, there are many "right" designs. It follows there could never be one article that is the "end all, be all" covering biodiesel reactor design.
Fortunately for me, I found Rich Walsh. Rich and I met when he placed a classified ad to sell a 275-gallon polyethylene tank and I found the ad. I was interested in the tank for storage and settling the collected restaurant oil I anticipated collecting. When I called Rich, I asked him how the tank had been used. His answer: biodiesel. I told Rich I was very interested in the tank and even more interested in talking to him about his biodiesel processing operation. He said biodiesel was his favorite subject and told me to come on down to his house. I did. Rich was great! He answered all my questions, endured my repetitious requests for confirmation ("Okay, wait a minute. Let me get this straight!"), and patiently explained everything about his biodiesel operation. He even offered to drive to my house when I was ready to produce my first batch of biodiesel and help me with my first titrations. What a great guy! Rich filled in all the blanks for me and I owe him a ton for all his help getting me started.
To build my own reactor, I combined all my sources including:
1. all the designs and suggestions I found in articles online
2. Rich's explanations of his working reactor
3. my own working knowledge of plumbing and pipe fitting
Now, after building my own reactor, I would like to suggest several things I feel make a better reactor. Please take these suggestions in the spirit in which they are intended and don't feel that you have to make your reactor exactly like mine or need to refute my design as incorrect. Beautiful fuel comes out of my reactor and that is the objective-plain and simple. Variant design is one of the great things about home biodiesel brewers. I highly recommend examining as many reactors as you can-even after you build yours. You are sure to find some great ideas that you can adapt to your own reactor and make it even better!
I built my first reactor around an electric water heater. I followed the "Appleseed" design which I believe originated with Maria Alovert of www.LocalB100.com. (Maria Alovert is extremely well-respected and uses the moniker 'girlMark' in the home brewing biodiesel community.) Water heaters have several desirable qualities built right in:
1. water heaters have pre-existing plumbing so you can easily circulate and vent your reactor-no welding required
2. water heaters have electric (no flame and therefore no ignition) heating elements built right in-no need to cut holes in the side of your tank to install a heating element
3. water heaters have insulation packed around them which conserves energy and reduces oil heat up time-the insulation layer is even covered with sheet metal for easy cleanup
4. water heaters are plentiful-many are free for the taking from remodeling projects or people doing upgrades or switching to gas fired water heaters
5. Water heaters are available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. You are sure to find one that will both fit your quantity needs as well as your available space.
This is a drawing of my first reactor. I tried to make it as simple and easy to use as possible. Take a look at the plumbing and fittings on it. The purpose of each component should become evident as you study its design.
Valves control the flow of the oil. Union fittings allow quick and secure connections with hoses to transfer the oil in and out of the reactor.
Size Matters
When you look for the appropriate water heater, size is a prominent consideration. Size requirements are determined by several factors including the volume of your vehicle's fuel tank, the amount of fuel you want to process per batch, the amount of dedicated physical space you have for the reactor, etc.
I like to process 40 gallon batches because my pickup holds about 37 gallons. But a 40 or 50 gallon water heater can be inadequate to process 40 gallon batches. Why? Well, consider this:
Let's say you have a 50 gallon water heater-a very common size. If you put 40 gallons (approximately 150 liters) of oil into the water heater, 10 gallons of space remains above the oil.
To process 150 liters of oil, you add 33 liters of Methanol (22% by volume)-almost 9 gallons (8.717 to be more exact). Only one gallon of space remains for splash mixing and expansion. In my humble opinion, this is not nearly enough room to process the biodiesel.
Not only is there inadequate space to mix and react 40 gallons of biodiesel in the 50 gallon water heater, there is still the matter of washing the biodiesel. After the resultant glycerol is drained off (about the same amount of Methanol you added), about 40 gallons of fuel remains. In a 55-gallon drum, that leaves about 15 gallons of room for wash water-and that's if the barrel is filled to the brim! This can be trouble for even the most diligently attentive biodieseler (overflow is a constant worry when you're this close to the barrel's rim).
So, you may ask, how do I process 40 gallon batches? Good question. If you look at my setup (in the photos on this site), you'll see I have two settling/wash barrels mounted to the chassis of an old hospital gurney. I split up my larger batches into the two settling/wash barrels and I can easily handle them safely. What about my water heater? Well, it's a 65 gallon tank and that gives me that extra space I need to react larger batches.
I mention all this size stuff because it should be considered BEFORE you start building your reactor and processing setup. Designing and planning is cheap. Rebuilding is expensive. Design and plan your processing operation ahead of time and it won't cost you double (or more) to rebuild it.
Brass Ball Valves
It seems like there are never enough ball valves to plumb a biodiesel reactor-at least that's how I felt when I was building mine. I searched the internet for a cheap source for brass ball valves but it seems there isn't a really cheap source. I did find a place that would sell them to me for significantly less than Home Depot or Lowe's: Discover Valve. If you watch their web site for specials, you can get the " brass ball valves for a pretty good price.
Ball valves are better than gate valves because they are faster--turn the handle 90 degrees and you have full flow; turn the handle 90 degrees the other way and you have complete shut off. When open, ball valves have an opening through them that is large and allows full flow volume without restriction--I love that! Tip one up and look through it. You'll see what I mean.
Plumbing and Pipe Fitting
If you don't have a plumber/pipe fitter in the family or some other source for cheap plumbing and pipe fitting, you can sink a lot of money into this component of your biodiesel reactor. I think it would be worth the effort to find a friend who had some spare or left over fittings and some unused " black pipe lying around. Or, if you have plenty of money, you can simply go to your local hardware store and buy all the parts you need. The very nature, purpose and spirit of making your own biodiesel is to SAVE money so do your best is to find some surplus plumbing supplies for cheap. Everything should be black pipe. I've read on many web sites that black pipe is less reactive and safer for use with biodiesel. I don't question the wisdom of the people who said this. I figured somebody must have discovered something about galvanized pipe that wasn't safe or compatible with biodiesel so I don't question it. All my pipe and fittings are black pipe.
My biodiesel reactor (the one you see on this web site) is on its third plumbing design iteration. That's right. I've plumbed, re-plumbed, and then re-re-plumbed my reactor. Why? Because I continually study how the process works, ponder ways to make it simpler, more direct, cleaner, more compact, and easier to use. Then I break out the pipe wrenches and get to work. Each time it has improved. Each time I have been happier with the new design. I think my emphasis has always been to reduce the number of parts, reduce the number of places to leak or fail, and to eliminate flow restrictions such as tight turns (i.e. elbows) or restrictive fittings (i.e. street-el's). I could have left my reactor the way it was originally; it worked just fine. But I enjoy messing with it and improving it, even if I only realize the improvement in my imagination. Hey! It's mine and I can mess with it if I want to! And so can you!
Drainage
Getting the oil and other liquids into the reactor is only one aspect of its use. Once the reaction is finished, you must drain the liquids back out. When you plumb your reactor keep this part of the reactor's use in mind.
All the drainage fittings on my reactor point down. My cycling pump is mounted vertically (rather than horizontally like you will see in most photos in biodiesel web sites). Where the oil comes out of the bottom of the reactor (water heater) the plumbing immediately turns and points down (using a "T" fitting). All of these design choices show just how much I want to drain all of the reacted oil out of the reactor. The glycerol concentration in reacted oil is high and if left to cool inside the water heater will turn to a hardened layer at the bottom of the water heater tank. Horizontal drains are not likely to drain as efficiently as vertical. And I do not want my pump full of solidified glycerol! So I mounted my cycling pump vertically and it drains automatically! Your reactor design is up to you but consider drainage carefully BEFORE you start plumbing and you will not be sorry. That said, remember nothing is permanent and you can always change the plumbing if you so desire.
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