Ethanol and biodiesel may not be worlds apart…

I have spent the last few days in scenic Florida at the NBB’s 2012 conference. It has been an interesting event, part time to see old friends and industry veterans, part opportunity to hear about the industry from both NBB’s and Big Petroleum’s perspectives, and finally time to see what wares the larger technology vendors have augmented their armouries with in the last year or two.

I have received invitations from several ethanol producers in the last few months interested in the co-locating a Promethean-scale biodiesel plant next to their ethanol production facility. This has historically been a challenging sort of partnership for the for both biodiesel and ethanol producers alike given the intertwined states of current technology and economic conditions.

A current factoid is that there is more than 2 billion gallons of biodiesel capacity ready today with a market size of 1.3 billion gallons (given RFS 2 mandated production targets). With that quantity of excess capacity, I do not believe that any new large-scale greenfield biodiesel plants need to be built anytime soon. Even with site-sourced feedstock, its axiomatic that the investment in a new facility is unnecessary with the quantity of willing and able buyers that are out there for DDG-derived oil.

At the moment the most logical model for those plants interested in processing DDG-derived oil remains sourcing and transporting it from logistically tenable ethanol plants. This also allows the plant to leverage it’s current fuel blending and distribution infrastructure, which is feasible, yet obviously tangential, to the core business of the manufacturer.

And then there is the additional issue of the technical complexity of converting corn oil into biodiesel. The fact is inedible corn oil is difficult to process into biodiesel feedstock. Coupled with the ever-evolving set of ASTM specifications for biodiesel and plant installation now runs the risk of having to upgrade there equipment early enough that it ruins any amortization assumptions made to support timely ROI (return-on-investment).

That said, I do believe that there is a bright future for the ethanol industry to create plants that make specialty chemicals out of byproduct streams. That is one reason I believe I have been receiving so many paid invitations; we have a good deal of experience in developing products out of our byproduct streams.

Make it a better place!


Towards balanced abundance.

America’s $2 billion dollar-a-day oil habit actually costs an additional $4 billion in indirect costs, to the total of $6 billion dollars a day, or 16% of our Gross Domestic Product. That’s $1.5 trillion a year Americans pay in additional costs varying from supply-side economics, oil-price volatility, and the cost of our military engagements in the Gulf region.

Our way of life is soon to be shocked by the geologic reality that the Earth’s oil supply is finite. The petroleum industry is certainly spending tremendous sums in search of a triumvirate of new; new technologies, new supplies, and new political allies. Peak oil has come and gone. Although news of North Dakota boomtowns like Williston seemingly herald an end to our immediate supply woes; even if these fields produce 24 billion barrels of oil they will be dry in ten years at our current rate of consumption. The United Nations recently released revised projections that our global population will increase through 2050 upward from our currently near 6.8 billion global inhabitants to as high as 10.5 billion.

As oil prices go up, America pays through businesses forced to pass along higher fuel costs to their customers, higher fuel prices at the gas station, and increased reliance on foreign oil…. We also send billions of dollars to foreign countries, as well as maintain a considerable debt load, to feed our addiction to gasoline and foreign oil. Although oftentimes we look to the Middle East as our major supplier of oil of foreign origin, in reality 55% of it is supplied by Canada. Saudi Arabia supplies approximately 30%, and Venezuela and Mexico provide an additional 10% and 5% respectively.

2011 has been a banner year for biodiesel, with production soaring. The planets have aligned, and the industry is enjoying a tremendous amount of support.

The biodiesel tax credit is set to expire and many believe that because the demise of the ethanol tax credit seems a near certainty for 2012 the end of one spells doom for the other.

I believe the best calls to action are simply stated but broad in vision. In this moment lies our opportunity to take control of our destiny and fulfill our obligation as environmental stewards. More importantly, our actions now will have an effect on climate change, which is an issue that is already threatening the survival of several species which may in the long term be a set inclusive of humanity.

The economics alone may not be sufficient to change our behavior. The threat that climate change poses to the way we live, if at all, may not be sufficient, or simply sufficiently grasped in time.

One of our goals at Promethean is to try and educate that sustainability is about balance, not about sacrifice.

We are striving to create a world of balanced abundance. We are working on technologies that increase the efficiency related to what we do here at our scale; we know our efforts are being pursued by others in the renewable fuels sector, from a myriad of directions. All of these efforts are in the end working towards life enhancement. Their commercial success depends upon it.

At the end of the day we must avoid as a nation the temptation to not invest in our energy infrastructure given the current state of the economy. Our renewable energy capacity will prove a critical component of our future as a global leader. Our future is counting on it.

Make it a better place!


Hyper consumerism is a plague.

Hyper consumerism is a plague sapping the strength from our beautiful nation.

Many argue that our consumer culture is the root of our current military conflicts; our need for foreign oil, amongst other things, grows every day. Our political representatives in dissonance to their actions proclaim their dedication to all things “green”. Meanwhile we see investment in our schools and roads, the future brains and arteries of America, suffer from year after year declines even as the banking industry has arisen from the brink of failure.

China is currently the world’s largest consumer of energy. The United States is second. The Indian economy is growing rapidly as well, and their prodigious acquisition of gold is one of the reasons that they are the world’s largest consumer of the nigh-indestructible stuff in 2011.

The economists of international consultancy PwC predict, along with many others, that the GDP of China will be larger than that of the US by 2025, with India surpassing the U.S. by 2050.

It may be the case that in 2050 the financial house of the United States of America will be in better order. But the oil markets, such as they may be at that time, are likely to be far more competitive than they are even now, and the pressure for conflict an inevitable consequence.

A movement can change the world one person at a time, but the person has to be willing to change. Social change on the scale we are advocating cannot be forced; only discovered and adopted as a way of being.

What we do  here at the plant is often difficult. Making biodiesel from used cooking oil is not an easy craft. Our form of energy is not derived from pristine sources. We make liquid beauty by eradicating chaos.

We are humble in the practice of our alchemy, and increasingly conscious of the operational precision required to ensure quality product that can power the community.  Many of the founding fathers of chemistry, including the man who is largely regarded as the first modern chemist, Robert Boyle, had their foundations in the noble pseudoscience that is alchemy.

I must admit that I realize that this particular entry is more opinion piece than factoid. I will not apologize for sharing my point of view.

I say it because I care. And if you have dared to read this far I know you care too.

Make it a better place!


A collective aacount…

I made a journey recently to attend the Collective Biodiesel Conference, held this year in Duncan, British Columbia.

From my perspective, it was nothing short of amazing.

I was there to give a talk on the last day of the conference about growing community-scale biodiesel cooperatives.  It gave me the opportunity to visit some old friends, make new ones, and share our differing philosophies on how to handle common problems affecting us all.

I was surrounded by a cadre of biodiesel loyalists and industry heroes and often found myself in the midst of conversations that ranged from a gregarious Lyle Estill (Piedmont Biofuels) and Jennifer Radthke (Biofuels Oasis) discussing Josh Tickell’s new film “Freedom” to Josh and I discussing his plans to develop an off-grid community, followed by Jason Burroughs and I discussing his trip from Seattle in a fully loaded vehicle with 8 other passengers and a scary tire blow out.

The next day I was spent listening to Lyle Estill as he discussed a brief history of Piedmont Biofuels, a cooperative that has  into an industrial producer  and research organization over the course of the lst 9 years. Piedmont’s capacity is roughly 1 million gallons per year. They are working on an enzymatic approach to treating high FFA feedstock with Novazymes, and have several patents in the works.

I flitted from presentation to presentation, covering everything from the state of algal research, especially as it pertains to the future of genetically modified algal strains, to Kumar Plocher’s talk on all things Yokayo, until finally on the last day my turn to speak came.

My presentation was focused to assit those interested in the set of considerations that affect whether or not a group interested in forming a cooperative should, how the goal of the industry at large should be to make BQ 9000 obsolete, and the trials and tribulations of facility registrations under RFS2.

In a short three days I was reunited with old friends, made several new ones, and spent my time immersed in the nurturing environment of old friends more used to the daily trials and tribulations of manufacturing, marketing, and evangelizing our advanced biofuels.

I came back rejuvenated, and refocused on our goal: Clean chemicals, clean materials, and clean power from recycled feedstock.

It’s time to shake the world.

Make it a better place!


Green energy as a commodity?

These are strange times for the alternative fuels industry.

Feedstock prices remain at an all time high.  Theft is a problem for most. Margins remain tight, even though from a credits perspective all the planets have temporarily aligned in favor of alternative fuels.

Those of us at Promethean have been working on understanding the set of things we are good at doing, and the set of things that we need to improve upon. Ours is an interesting industry in that what began as a boutique approach to making fuel is quickly transforming into a commodity business. It is an oddity to think that the higher form recycling we do everyday may soon be similar to industries like paper and scrap metal recycling. In those markets, brand differentiators are difficult to articulate, especially when the bars in fuel production are minimally set in terms of achieving the ASTM standard.  Many consider BQ 9000 to be the current differentiator between top tier producers, but ultimately the quality controls supported by this program will be adopted by most out of necessity if they are to survive, even if they do not pay a third-party auditor to confirm the existence of an active program.

We do have loyalists that visit us.  In many cases they are committed to B100 and a petroleum independent world, where those who drive can do so knowing that they have converted waste to energy. So are we. We also understand that to be truly sustainable we must not only be able to supply consistent fuel quality and quantities, as well as identifying and formulating products that serve a higher purpose for our feedstocks and byproducts.

Green energy as a commodity. It may sound horrible to some. The tone and tenor of the thought makes me uncomfortable as well. But there is a magic in the achievement, as any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to the unenlightened or lay person. We must pursue this sort of product anonymity and make it part of the common reality. True success in our business means that our products will enjoy a similar anonymity to their petroleum-based counterparts. They may be fundamentally different from petroleum products in the molecular sense, but in functionality they need to ultimately be superior, and lest we forget, price competitive.

Make it a better place!


Collective Biodiesel Conference 2011

I will be participating in a Collective Biofuels Conference this summer on Vancouver Island and Jessy Bradish, one of the conference organizers, requested that I pass along the details. If you believe anyone you know might be interested in attending please spread the word. I would really appreciate it!

The conference lasts a weekend and consists of workshops about biofuels, with a focus on sustainable biodiesel production and community case studies.

Several  industry stars have been recruited to speak and present, including Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels and Josh Tickell, the director FUEL. You can see the full lineup on the CBC website.

Feel free to email with questions, and please pass this along to your contacts!

More information about the conference can be found below.

Make it a better place!


Collective Biofuels Conference
Fri, Aug 05 to Sun, Aug 07
Queen Margaret’s School, Duncan, BC, CA
Keywords: biofuel, biodiesel, biodiesel processing, biodiesel production, straight vegetable oil, ethanol, jatropha, algae, energy, advanced biofuels, sustainable energy, alternative energy, biomass, Vancouver Island, Canada, British Columbia, Duncan, Cowichan Vall
The Collective Biofuels Conference brings renewable energy experts, enthusiasts and interested beginners together to discuss all things biofuels, with a focus on biodiesel.

This year’s Collective Biofuels Conference features 20 workshops on sustainable community-scale biofuels – from grass-root…

New study on restaurant recycling programs.

Recently the National Restaurant Association surveyed 500 restaurant owners and operators nationwide during March and April, 2011. Consumer findings are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,010 American adults surveyed March 10-13, 2011. The findings were not particularly surprising; three out of five restaurant patrons surveyed indicated that they preferred to eat at establishments that had recycling programs in place.

An article posted by Urban Mining can be found here.

Some highlights of the study included:

  • 65%  of restaurateurs currently have a recycling program in place; 13% participate in composting programs.
  • 74% of restaurateurs who recycle do so in the kitchen and office areas; 43% have a program in the dining room and other customer-facing areas.
  • Nearly three out of four (72%) restaurant operators use products made from recycled materials; the most common of these items were bags, paper products and food containers.
  • 60% of consumers say they prefer to visit a restaurant that recycles.
  • A strong majority of consumers (85%) say they sort recyclables in quickservice restaurants if receptacles are provided.
  • About half of consumers (51%) say they are willing to pay a little more for menu items at a restaurant that recycles.

Of course oftentimes what people say they will do (in regards to paying more) often differs to the reality of the decision made at the time of purchase, so some of these statements actually require further empirical research or qualification to ascertain the actual willingness to pay more and the actual difference in pricing that would be acceptable to the consumer.

In the area of used oil collection we find the majority of restaurants do seem to have relationships with oil collectors. Our efforts in this area of late have focused on determining how we can differentiate our services and provide greater value to those restaurants and collectors that do make the choice of using Promethean as their service provider or oil purchaser.

Make it a better place!


One step forward…two steps backwards on the trail to BQ-9000.

We have been working towards a BQ-9000 compliant program here for a long time. It seems that oftentimes the process follows a simple pattern of one step forward, two steps back. I call it the “Biodiesel Waltz”. Our last results came in on the 5th of May, and were well within ASTM D 6751 specification.

That said, we received our latest test results and the good news is that quality is consistent. Of course our costs are not.  Oil feedstock price is at an all time high…STILL.  Theft is growing as well.

I have been visiting plants in Mexico during the last month, and we have started a new consulting project as well.

Production is eeking along at a steady pace, although I have been feeling a little stretched as the workload is heavy. I have also been spending more time on speaking engagements, including a recent series at the California Center for Cooperative Development (, an amazing organization focused on helping cooperatives flourish.

We keep on recycling, making fuel, testing, processing, and trying to keep up with the paperwork.

The planets have aligned for the industry; credits are in place, RINS are available to most (not us yet….but we’re working on it), and there is oil out there, although expensive at this time.

Below I have included one of the beautiful illustrations produced during the recent cooperative symposium by Eris Weaver, a strategic planning facilitator and guru. It features a term I like to think I coined, “Coopetition”.

Make it a better place!


Oil washing with glycerin; process improvements and an expedition by bio truck.

It has been an amazing two months at Promethean!

We are in the process of increasing our storage capacity for finished and interim products by about 20,000 gallons.

The irony is our oil supplies have been pretty low overall, with theft a major issue for us at the moment. The rain, although a blessing in general for California, is anathema to our oil quality, as water is not conducive for maintaining low FFA (free fatty acid) concentrations.

To address these issues I have begun revisiting some process approach alternatives including alkali refining, modified acid esterification, glycerin washing, and a low temperature “glycerolysis” approach. I have also successfully developed a new approach to to soap and sterols removal in the wake of converting high FFA feed stocks.  I hope to have results worth publishing in July or August of 2011; the work is very promising and I hope to have some data that can be put into modeling an automated process approach. Or not. We shall see.

Andy Pag ( will be arriving at the plant tomorrow morning, March 29th, 2011.  He has been making his way around the world in a recycled Mercedes school bus running primarily on biodiesel. He has been visiting biodiesel plants in Southern California of late, including New Leaf Biofuels of San Diego.

We get lots of requests to sponsor various road trips or to donate fuel, so many that of late I have become increasingly selective of the types of folks and escapades  we support.  I sometimes wish I was the one travelling across the world in a biodiesel-powered fun bus. Oh well…maybe one day it will be my turn.

Make it a better place,