Headspace Desiccation

By Rick Da Tech


Headspace Desiccation used to dry biodieselHeadspace Desiccation is the name industry gives to the most common method home brewers use to dry biodiesel. It is popular because it not only removes free and emulsified water, it also removes dissolved water. It is essentially evaporating water out of biodiesel without boiling or using a vacuum. Three basic properties control evaporation rates:

  • blankRelative humidity of the air 
  • blankSurface area of the biodiesel 
  • blankTemperature of the bio diesel

Headspace is the airspace in your oil tank between the top of the oil and the roof of the tank. As water evaporates, the air in the headspace becomes saturated with water. Headspace desiccation is the process of removing that water from the headspace. If you live in a dry area with low humidity, you can do it by replacing the air in the headspace with fresh air. If you live in a wet area with high humidity, you must actively dry the air in the headspace.

Silica gel is very effective at removing water from the headspace and can be regenerated economically. It can be regenerated over and over to give the silica gel an indefinite life expectancy. It is common and can even be found in most hobby stores as it is used to dry flowers. Just be sure to get the kind with "indicator crystals" that change color as it becomes saturated with water.

Another method sometimes used is to dry the air with a room dehumidifier. These appliances can be expensive to purchase and operate, but they quickly remove water from the air and do not need to be regenerated like silica gel.

The easiest way to speed evaporation is to increase the surface area of the oil. Doubling surface area doubles the rate of evaporation as long as everything else remains the same. The methods we use to increase surface area also mix the oil and moves the water near the air/oil interface where it can quickly evaporate. In dry areas, we can spray a thin film of wet oil into the top of our drum to satisfy this requirement. Bubbling air through it, both mixes the wet oil and increases its surface area.

Heating the oil increases the energy in the water making it easier for it to evaporate. When water evaporates, it sucks energy out of its surrounding, causing a chilling effect. The energy absorbed by evaporating water is called the latent heat of evaporation. At a minimum, we need to supply enough heat to overcome the latent heat of evaporation.

One advantage of headspace desiccation is that you can recycle the air. That is an advantage if you want to use oxygen-depleted air to increase your biodiesel's shelf life. Recycling the air requires we actively dry the headspace. When we use Silica Gel to dry the headspace, heating the oil also heats the air in the headspace and reduces the silica gel's ability to remove water vapor.

Examples of Headspace Desiccation

Bubble Drying Biodiesel

Raften from Infopop uses a bubbler to push the water into the top of the drum, and the fan pushes it out. When it is cold, or he is in a hurry, he speeds things up by using a water heater element to heat the bio up to about 130°F before adding the bubbler. The fan blows fresh air down into the drum, and the wet air goes out through the hole in the plywood.

spraying biodiesel to increase surface area for drying

BobAbbey from infopop makes this sprayer out of 1/2" vinyl tubing with 1/8" holes every 4" supplied by an HF pump. A heating element is used in the tank to boost the temperature when necessary.

  • legal1
  • spray nozzle
  • Legal's Dry Tank
  • Legal4

The pictures above, donated by Legal Eagle of B100wh.com, show a spray type dry tank. The FF-316 Stainless Steel 145° Flat Fan nozzle from Bete, provides for the increase in surface area. The bypass valve on the nozzle manifold allows adjustment of the spray pattern. The fan keeps fresh low humidity air above the biodiesel for rapid evaporation. The spear heater is used to heat the biodiesel.

  • imake1
  • imake2
  • imake3
  • imake4
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  • imake6

imakebiodiesel from Ireland has a humidity problem and uses this setup using 2-300 grams of silica gel in a tray to desiccate the fresh air before blowing it into his150 liter dry tank. He also desiccates the air he uses to bubble it.

Update: imakebiodiesel has changed his setup by moving the fan out of his pail. The result is that he only desiccates the air for bubbling with the silica gel. Doing so increases the length of time the silica gel lasts before recharging. His fan is now on a bit of plywood like Raften's above. Link to his description on infopop.



The GL Processor

Another related technique is the GL process. With the GL process, he uses a condenser to desiccate the headspace, when drying his oil, before he makes it into biodiesel.