Biodiesel: Oily adopters
Turning fast-food waste oil into clean-burning biodiesel, a father-son duo sees no downside.
Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 05:00 AM
DRIVE-THRU: After processing, waste vegetable oil becomes biodiesel fuel which is ready for use in any diesel engine. (Photo courtesy Jimmy Baron)
To make a fuel that burns far cleaner than fossil fuel, Spencer Gordon heads to the restaurant-dense Atlanta airport to pick up vegetable oil previously used to make French fries and chicken fingers.
The Southern traveler's love of fast food -- especially Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits, which contributes 40 gallons of waste oil to Gordon's effort every two days -- guarantees the raw material needed to make what he and his father consider a near-perfect fuel: biodiesel.
Once processed, biodiesel can power any diesel engine without modification, unlike pure vegetable oil, which only runs in vehicles with retrofitted engines. Biodiesel is even good for your engine, the younger Gordon says. Because it's a better lubricant, it extends engine life and requires less maintenance.
"There are no downsides to biodiesel, only upsides," adds John Gordon, Spencer's father and business partner. "How many things in life can you say that about?"
The father (below left) and son (below right) founded Perfect Circle Renewable Energy four years ago as a tiny operation in suburban Atlanta. Earlier this year, they moved their operation to a northeast Atlanta warehouse. They plan to make 50,000 gallons of biodiesel this year, twice as much as last year.
"We're still on a shoestring," John says, "but we were on a shoe-thread."
The manufacturing equipment, purchased from a North Carolina company that makes a million gallons of biodiesel a year, is designed to accommodate greater production over time. For now, the operation is small, clean and quiet except for the occasional roar of an air compressor. No odor, no fumes. Much of the process involves removing water from the recycled oil and cleaning the biofuel to meet standards. The only dangerous part of the process happens in an unassuming reactor, where oil is combined with methoxide to force the chemical reaction that turns the oil into a combustible material.
Perfect Circle sells its product to Dreamscape Designs, a landscaping company, and Serenbe, a sustainable community south of Atlanta. In exchange for the warehouse space, they provide fuel to a company that builds bridges. Its main customer is Gordon Document Products, the office-equipment company John has run for 30 years. His small business uses the biodiesel he and his son make to power all five of its vehicles.
Spencer's interest in the environment took hold as a teenager, and his conviction in biodiesel started when he was a college student in Colorado. "I sent him to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, and he came back a confirmed environmentalist," his father says. (Spencer, dressed in a polo and khakis, prefers the term "tree-hugging hippie.")
Spencer was intrigued when an environmental science professor preached the wonders of biodiesel. He begged his father to read up on it, but John said he was too busy. During parents' weekend, he saw a biodiesel prototype. John liked the idea of decreasing dependence on foreign oil while spewing fewer emissions into the air.
Critics charge that biofuels require too much energy to produce once the process of growing the crops is considered. But the Gordons are recycling a product that would otherwise be discarded or used for animal feed or fertilizer. With their operation, which runs on electricity and a low-emission, biodiesel-powered boiler, "for every one unit of energy use, you get three units back," Spencer says.
After Spencer graduated from Colorado College with a degree in international politics and economics, the pair started the business, with John providing the capital and Spencer acting as a minority shareholder. The plan is for Spencer to become an equal partner through sweat equity, his father says.
With an eye on profitability, both father and son pore over Excel spreadsheets. One challenge is convincing potential customers that biodiesel is worth paying premium price. Yes, people can be convinced it's good to help make the planet healthier, but they aren't necessarily willing to pay more for the greater good. "We hear a lot of, 'If it isn't broken, don't fix it'," Spencer says.
The Gordons believe the customer service their small company provides will make the product attractive. John points out that his office-equipment business has grown even in a down economy and even though he competes with huge corporations like Xerox.
"It's all about scale," Spencer says. "If we can break even at this level, imagine what we can do at a million gallons a year."
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