The idea that you could grow your own gasoline (sort of) is just so appealing - freedom from foreign oil, freedom from releasing long-buried carbon into the atmosphere, maybe even remediating or reclaiming some damaged land. What could be greener?
Reality is not so easy of course: between competition with food, the energy costs associated with growing, harvesting, transporting and processing the feedstock, and the equipment and operations costs for making biofuels, it's still (mostly) gasoline-from-drilled-oil that we buy at the pump. But that doesn't mean that there aren't lots of smart people working on a lot of innovative solutions to help us move toward biofuels.
In the case of biodiesel, the Catch-22 has always been the tradeoff between economics and quality. If you want to keep costs down, you need to use an inexpensive feedstock material. But inexpensive feedstock generates a lot of impurities and particulates that cause operational problems during production and performance problems during use. In addition, industry quality standards are increasingly more stringent. So right now your choice is either paying far more than most people are willing to pay for biodiesel to get the good stuff or dealing with the increased processing expense, poor quality and performance issues associated with the lower cost feedstock.
Ceramic Membranes Provide Better Biodiesel at a Lower Cost
Enter BDR Technologies, with a patented processing technology that makes very pure products no matter which feedstock you use, and does it at a lower cost than many of its competitors. In a BDR system, the feedstock, methanol and a catalyst are combined and passed through their special membrane filters. The filters are formed into tubes that provide a lot of surface area for the liquids to pass through, separating the biodiesel (and its glycerin co-product) from unreacted materials and contaminants from the biodiesel. You can see some of their membrane tube designs in the photo at left and their microstructure in cross-section in the micrograph just below it (hey, I'm a materials scientist by training - I get to put in micrographs once in a while!). The result: nice, clean biodiesel and very pure glycerin (for soap, cosmetics, pharmaceutials and other applications).
CEO Ken Lawless told me during our coaching session that they designed from the beginning for retrofit into existing biodiesel processing systems. The bonus for their customers is that the reactors can essentially double the capacity of an existing plant on the same footprint with very short payback periods. I love this approach because he doesn't have to build plants - which could run into the tens of millions. He just needs $250K to insert his reactors into an existing plant to improve its quality and increase capacity, making this technology a much more affordable option. He's planning to commission the demo plant in September 2012, so it's a very exciting time for him and his team.
If you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to attend their pitch by registering for TechConnect World Expo and attending the Consulate General of Canada Boston's all day Canada Innovates clean energy conference, including pitches by 14 Canadian companies with a broad range of technologies.
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