The Thrills of Bio-fuel Plant Commissioning!

By Makarand Gawade, Staff Writer


I would like to share with you one of my most memorable and challenging professional experiences during commissioning of a fuel ethanol plant in Cali, Colombia. What makes this experience unique is the fact that it was Colombia’s first step towards biofuels, Colombia’s president was scheduled to inaugurate the plant, and I faced a very challenging situation while trying to complete the project in time. Very early in my professional career, Praj – global leader in biofuels technology – presented me an opportunity to lead the commissioning of the first-of-a-kind ethanol projects in Colombia that the company perceived as a stepping stone to emerge as a global leader in ethanol technology. During commissioning of the first project, we faced an unforeseen malfunction of a crucial device due to a technical glitch. This jeopardized the timely startup of the plant and its inauguration by the president of Colombia. I realized that the problem occurred due to Praj’s design error, and I was determined to resolving this intricate situation amidst stressful conditions and tight deadlines.

The Colombian projects, with pioneering fermentation, distillation, and dehydration technology, were of unprecedented importance. Overcoming cultural differences, language barriers, and the customers’ inexperience in ethanol projects, my team was able to start the fermentation and distillation sections of the plant after four weeks of devoted efforts.

Everything was functioning smoothly, until an extraordinary failure occurred in the third section — dehydration. Excessive steam pressure blew off a critical safety device on the equipment. Consequently, we were forced to shut down the dehydration section. This unplanned shut-down made matters worse; the customer wanted the entire plant to be operational when Colombia’s president was scheduled to inaugurate the plant in a few days, and embark Colombia’s expedition towards biofuels. It was a crisis situation, since failure to start the dehydration section before the inauguration would deeply dent Praj’s image.

The safety device was locally unavailable; the device’s international vendor claimed two weeks’ delivery time. We could not shut down the entire plant since restart would have taken another week’s time. So, in the interim, I ensured the first two sections kept running.


As a team lead, I faced an extremely challenging situation, which demanded a ground-breaking solution. I worked to find a reliable solution by exploring various options. After determining feasibility of success, I suggested that we restart the dehydration section in manual mode after a modification to isolate the safety device, and later operate it in auto-mode. Following exhaustive discussions and analysis of the risks involved, the management approved my plan. The customer exhibited confidence in my team’s capability, by concurring to implement the solution.

Manual operation of the plant was cumbersome, laborious, and required continuous monitoring; I was constantly motivating the team and we diligently worked for forty-eight hours. Eventually, we started the dehydration section in auto-mode and achieved the desired quality ethanol within forty-eight hours.

The customer celebrated the first drop of anhydrous ethanol – the final product, with the most popular Colombian drink “aguardiente.” The plant was inaugurated on time and this success boosted Praj’s image as a reliable and cutting-edge technology supplier in South America, where Praj now enjoys over fifty percent market share, and attracted several global renewable energy investors’ funding for research in next-generation biofuels.

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