Friday, May 15, 2009


Chemist says he has way to turn algae, other waste into diesel inexpensively

By Neal St. Anthony | McClatchy/Tribune News

April 26, 2009


MINNEAPOLIS -- A Minnesota biofuels company that has attracted visits from financiers, scientists, customers and the federal government has produced a clean diesel fuel from algae harvested from a pond next door to its plant.

The development could prove big for the alternative-fuels business and the Midwestern economy.

Clayton McNeff, a chemist and veteran industrialist, said his family-owned SarTec Corp. has perfected a 3-year-old "continuous flow" process and produces about 1,000 gallons of diesel weekly for $1.25 to $1.75 per gallon from a variety of sources, from restaurant and ethanol-plant waste oils to non-edible crops and plain old pond scum.

"We see this as revolutionary technology, and we're not trying to keep it a secret," said McNeff, 40, who recently published a peer-reviewed scientific paper.

"You can deploy this technology using small mobile units, so you don't need to send feedstocks hundreds of miles," McNeff said. "You just use local crop waste, or ethanol waste oil or algae."

McNeff has raised about $7 million from family and friends to construct a "two-reactor" pilot plant in Isanti, Minn., which will open in June.

His Ever Cat Fuels expects to produce 4 million gallons of clean diesel annually from a variety of feedstocks.

"This technology has the potential to help with energy security and climate change," Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who directs the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a recent letter of support to federal officials. "These are two of the most important issues we face in terms of our country's economic and environmental future."

The technology is rooted in a 2006 research project by then-Augsburg College student Brian Krohn and chemistry professor Arlen Gyberg, who turned to McNeff, also an Augsburg-trained chemist.

The U.S. consumes about 140 billion gallons of gasoline and 60 billion gallons of diesel per year, distilled mostly from imported oil, to fuel vehicles, trains and ships. Last year, in response to soaring fuel prices, national security and global warming concerns, President George W. Bush signed into law legislation that mandates increasing amounts of homegrown fuels from renewable sources.

National demand for biodiesel has grown to 450 million gallons this year from 25 million gallons in 2004, according to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

"There are some really good business opportunities that make use of waste oils such as technology that Clayton is developing," said Doug Cameron, chief scientific adviser at investment bank Piper Jaffray & Co. "There is a big opportunity with algae. It is unproven at this point. But the research and use of algae at waste treatment plants, which also cleans up the phosphorus and other pollutants, and the use of carbon dioxide at power plants is encouraging."

The promise of Ever Cat's "Mcgyan Process" is that it can convert a variety of domestic non-food feedstocks through a low-energy, no-waste process that also could potentially employ hundreds throughout the Midwest.

In an interview, McNeff said SarTec, a 25-person company, and the Mcgyan Process have solved a vexing algae problem that should speed development of the promising feedstock.

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