Biodiesel production in Beatrice has held strong since a plant was put into service last year, setting new milestones for production.
The Duonix Beatrice biodiesel plant started producing the clean fuel around six months ago and now employs 50 workers, with engineering and other positions being added.
Plant Manager Russell Leighton said as production increases, more positions may be added.
“We’ve got a good group of employees and one of our senior VPs made the comment that our folks have a lot of grit,” Leighton said. “As we optimize, we’ll have to switch from third-party help to permanent positions. Depending on what direction we go as far as expansion, we’ll have to add employees.”
He added potential expansion plans are still being evaluated as the company continues to increase production, which has been strong.
“We had our record month for the second month in a row,” Leighton said. “We produced more than two million gallons this month alone. The quality, were being told by customers, is the best they’ve seen.”
The plant was purchased by Duonix Beatrice, a joint venture between Flint Hills Resources, which is a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc., and Benefuel Inc., in late 2011.
The plant was originally built in 2008, but was not finished and never operated.
Originally constructed at a cost of $50 million, the plant was sent to auction and purchased for $5 million.
Despite never being put into service, Flint Hills Resources and Benefuel needed to invest more than $100 million to retrofit the plant for operation.
While around 70 percent of the structure was usable, nearly all of the piping had to be redone to accommodate the plant’s needs.
“Number one, we have great employees and we’ve not had turnover, but when we have had turnover we’ve been able to hire qualified people and very dedicated employees," Leighton said. "A lot of our employees are tied to the community. We spent a lot of time with NGage and they’ve been extremely supportive.”
Walker Zulkoski, director of NGage, the area’s economic development group, said the economic benefits to the area could be seen as the retrofitting process began.
“Overall we’ve provided as many resource as we can,” he said. “They had a lot of people coming in and out. Tons of contractors were in and out for almost two years, so that was just a huge boost to the local economy. They were using hotel rooms, spending at restaurants and quite a few rentals were taken up.”
Leighton said another asset Beatrice offers is a strong community of business leaders working toward common goals.
“I think Beatrice has a lot going for it,” he said. “From industrial support, we’ve gotten to know just about every plant manager in the community. We have common goals and needs. We work together.”
Biodiesel can be used in most diesel engines, especially newer ones. The fuel has about 90 percent of the energy traditional diesel does, but comes with less sulfur, resulting in less buildup and fewer injector issues.
The plant, which Zulkoski said is the only functioning biodiesel plant in Nebraska, uses what the company calls ENSEL technology.
The process makes it possible to convert a range of lower cost feedstocks, such as recycled cooking oil and distillers corn oil, into high-quality biodiesel.
It does this by using a solid catalyst that combines esterification, a certain type of reaction, of high free fatty acid feedstocks and other processes into a single step, which eliminates waste, improves process efficiency and expands feedstock options.
The company can use various feedstock to make its product, whereas many other companies build a plant tailored to using one product.
The product is further enhanced by an upgraded distillation process that removes additional impurities which, when used on high free fatty acid feedstocks such as distillers corn oil, produces a higher quality biodiesel with superior cold weather performance.
The process was tested at a small pilot plant in Beatrice before the full-scale plant was put into operation. Beatrice’s plant is the first full-scale use of the technology.
Leighton added that surviving its first winter without many issues was another accomplishment, and the company has high homes for the future.
“We survived our first winter, which is a big challenge for a new plant,” Leighton said. “There were no issues other than a few frozen pipes and things like that. I would consider it a successful winter.”