Biofuels are gaining traction, lending support to manufacturers of tanks used to hold the alternative forms of energy.
"We've seen an increase in sales because of biodiesel and ethanol," said Greg Aymong, vice president of wastewater treatment and biofuels at Highland Tank & Manufacturing Co., Stoystown, Pa., which has six plants and 20 sales and engineering offices around the country. The company is on course to produce 100 tanks this year vs. 30 last year and ten times the 10 tanks produced in 2005.
The amount of material that goes into such tanks can be considerable. Jeff Cavey, standard tank sales manager at Modern Welding Co. Inc., Newark, Ohio, said that a 10,000- to 12,000-gallon tank might need between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of stainless steel. Some ethanol producers use million-gallon tanks that are field-fabricated.
Several sources said biofuel tanks don't necessarily have to be made of stainless steel, although it is the material of choice because it helps prevent corrosion that might ensue from potentially harsh ethanol and biodiesel fuels.
"So far, there has only been a couple instances where we included a stainless steel tank in a project or package for a biodiesel or an ethanol system," Cavey said. "A stainless steel tank is for a very specific byproduct of the ethanol-making process. But for end-use tanks, it goes back to the fact that if you can put ethanol in your car's gas tank it should be fine in a traditional storage tank."
When sourcing for biodiesel, in most cases Highland produces a carbon steel tank coated with a polyester or an epoxy, Aymong said. Many ethanol facilities use stainless steel, but some use carbon steel. "Some of the historic trends in manufacturing, in this case alcohols, are related back to using food-quality manufacturing techniques," he said. "Many facilities making alcohol for consumption are used to working with stainless, so we see that carrying over even with production of ethanol for motor fuel. It's not across the board, but a majority (of orders) on our part that do come through are stainless."
Because of the increase in the price of stainless steel this year, there has been some material substitution, Aymong said. "The result has been a closer look by the consumer in a coated carbon steel tank. The hike has increased the use of coated carbon (products) in applications that would have been stainless steel."
The return of customers to stainless isn't necessarily a given if coated carbon works just as well in the application. "Once customers get a taste of the success of the product, they may be in for life," Aymong said.
While there has been some boost in the use of stainless for biofuel refineries and tanks, there hasn't been the same boom for pipelines used to move the product to market.
Two issues limit transporting ethanol by pipeline water infiltration and corrosion, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API), Washington. Water penetrating the pipeline can dilute the ethanol, and there is evidence that ethanol can corrode pipelines, the API said. Since ethanol is shipped by barge, rail or truck and then blended with the gasoline as the tanker truck is loaded for retail delivery, this could affect consumer costs and create environmental impacts associated with the different modes of alternate transportation, the group said. While building dedicated ethanol pipelines has been considered to deal with water and corrosion issues specific to the product, the API said siting problems, as well as the dispersed nature and limited production of ethanol, might not generate the volume needed for new pipeline construction.
Despite the current challenges of biofuels production and distribution costs, Aymong remains bullish on the industry. "Look at the price of a barrel of oil, which continues to go up," he said. "I look at world events as very concerning. The addition of biodiesel and ethanol are extremely necessary to wean ourselves away from these unsecure suppliers around the world."