The TH Interview: Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels, Part 1 of 3

A person holding the nozzle of a biofuel gas pump.

seksan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images

Lyle Estill is co-founder, along with Leif Forer, Rachel Burton and a band of fellow grease enthusiasts, of Piedmont Biofuels (PB), a group that we reported on here. PB is essentially a biodiesel co-op that has gone from backyard 'brewing', to running a small 300-gallon-a-week set up, to operating a 4-million-gallons-per-year capacity industrial biodiesel plant, all in the space of a few years. On the side, the group operates a fledgling local, organic farm, runs educational programs, assists with biofuel research, and manufactures kits for home fuel production. Lyle also writes a popular and entertaining energy blog, and has even authored a book entitled Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel. In the first part of this three part interview, Lyle gives us a tour of the co-op's new industrial biodiesel facillity, and shows us how to make fuel from fat. We also learn how the group plans to create sustainable electricity for the local grid using waste veggie oil. In parts two and three we'll learn more about other sustainable businesses integrating with the co-op, and we'll visit the farm where it all began, and where do-it-yourself brewing still continues today.

As this TreeHugger is presently car-free, and as PB are in Pittsboro, rural North Carolina, it looked like organizing a meeting might prove problematic. Lyle, however, sees it as an opportunity:

"This is great! You jump in with Leif on his way to work in Pittsboro. He hands you
over to me. You write your brains out. I think we should be required to wedge all future reporters into our existent transportation cycles for tours/stories/etc."

This attention to conservation first, and to bigger-picture sustainability, is what marks the folks at PB out from many alternative fuel advocates. They are passionate about local production, and about local economies, and they try to avoid employing anyone with a long-distance commute, as Lyle explains:

"At a recent meeting with the folks from Best Commuter Workplaces, I told them it would be best to pass on us since we have a rule that if you don't live nearby you can't work here."

When we do finally manage to arrange transportation, we arrive at Piedmont Biofuels Industrial, the larger-scale end of PB's operations. The site was previously an aluminum manufacturing plant for military aircraft, and is supposedly nuclear-bomb proof. It has now been recycled into a fully operational biodiesel plant, as well as a hub for other sustainable businesses.

Running us through the process of making their fuel, Lyle begins by showing us three huge holding tanks on the outside of the poetically named 'Building One':

"This insulated tank is for feedstock that can be run anything - used chicken fat or, right now, virgin soy. The second tank is for methanol, and the third for glycerin. So we pump the reactants into the building. All the infrastructure was sitting here — we already had spill containment in the building, for example, so we just designed our reactors and fitted them in."

Once the reactants are brought into the building, the methanol is mixed with caustic to create a methoxide reaction, and then the methoxide is mixed with whatever fat is being used as a feedstock. It all sounds remarkably simple, but Lyle explains that there is usually a long process of setting the recipe, and testing and re-testing it in the lab, to make sure it is up to scratch. Once the recipe is correct, and the methoxide has been fully mixed with the feedstock, it is moved to a holding tank where the glycerin is allowed to fall out of the mix:

"You can think about it as a three-legged jelly fish. So you have this body, with three carbon chains hanging off it. Essentially, glycerin is an alcohol, and we are hacking those carbon chains off it, so you're out with glycerin, the thick, gluey alcohol, and in with the stringy, runny alcohol — methanol. So you end up with a substance, biodiesel, that is a drop-in replacement [for regular diesel]."

The glycerin is then pumped back out to the tanks in the yard, while the biodiesel is channeled next door into Building Two for a wash-dry process. Here Lyle indicates to a number of solar-thermal panels on the roof that are used to pre-heat the water used for washing — part of the co-op's attempts to reduce the fossil fuels used at all stages of manufacturing. Once the finished fuel is fully washed and purified, it is held in a large, solar-heated storage tank, waiting for delivery trucks to take it away to market.

But the fun at Piedmont Industrial doesn't end with manufacture of biofuels. Back over in building one, Lyle shows us a gigantic diesel generator, known as the Waukesha (pictured arriving), which is apparently powerful enough to keep all the lights on in Pittsboro:

"Now this is the big show. What we are doing is we have a substation in the yard, that came with the plant, so we are going to grid tie this, run it on straight recycled veggie oil, feed the electricity into the grid, and punch the heat back into our biodiesel process as a cogeneration plant. We got it Â3⁄4 of the way there, but we ran out of funds. We are definitely going to fire it up though, but we need to get some money first."