Innovations Climate Front of Book

Golden Gunk

Story by Rachel LaChapelle

Photos by Virginia Werner

Fat and sugar: these two simple components make up “Mother Nature’s battery,” says SeQuential Biofuels CEO Ian Hill. “We’re never going to be more efficient than that,” he says. SeQuential operates two fuel stations in Eugene that sell ethanol and biodiesel, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to petroleum and the “perfect liquid fuels,” Hill says.

Compared to the petroleum diesel offered at the station down the street, Hill says SeQuential’s biodiesel has proven benefits: “Same miles per gallon, better lubricity, better engine performance, lower emissions, and 30 cents [per gallon] cheaper,” says Hill. Nevertheless, SeQuential is still not selling out its biodiesel supply.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Hill says, against Big Oil with its deep pockets (gas and oil giant Exxon Mobil is the world’s wealthiest corporation) and some car dealerships that void warranties when consumers choose biodiesel. Diesel engines are 30 to 35 percent more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts. However, diesel-powered passenger cars make up only 2.8 percent of the US market; by comparison, over half of European cars run on diesel. Though the popularity of diesel cars is growing among American consumers, some manufacturers choose to opt out of what they consider a niche market. “Americans don’t buy diesel? That’s obviously not the whole story,” Hill says.

SeQuential Biofuels refinery employee David Towry displays a beaker of biodiesel.

When made from used cooking oil, biodiesel converts a waste product into an energy resource. Biodiesel burns cleaner than petroleum diesel, emitting up to 78 percent less carbon dioxide, to say nothing of the other harmful chemicals in conventional tailpipe emissions. “We turn potential pollutants into fuel, and essentially keep pollutants from going into the air,” says Mason Rippey, an employee at SeQuential.

Hill and SeQuential Biofuels co-founders Thomas Endicott and Tyson Keever began making biodiesel while attending the University of Oregon in the late 90s. They founded the company and later paired with Hawaii’s Pacific Biodiesel to launch Oregon’s first commercial biodiesel production facility in 2005. SeQuential has since scaled up its biodiesel production from backyard batches to 7-9 million gallons per year.

Vegetable oil-based fuels have been around since the turn of the 20th century, but the low cost and availability of petroleum diverted the world’s attention until recently. The biodiesel craze hit the United States in the early 2000s, when the combination of rising oil prices, global warming guilt, and increased energy security concerns post-9/11 ignited a nationwide interest in alternative energy sources. Biodiesel bootleggers began brewing clean-burning fuels at home (sometimes burning down barns and blowing up garages in the process).

The petroleum industry has a strong influence nationwide, though it lacks deep roots in Oregon. This makes Oregon a comparatively good place for a biofuel startup. “The kind of people who live here, the kind of politicians, tend to be supportive of what our business is trying to do,” Hill says. SeQuential has survived in the Northwest while other biofuel startups nationwide have died. “Within our industry, the cohorts we grew up with nationally—pretty much all of them are gone.”

Right now, Oregon needs more fuel than alternative sources than SeQuential can supply. Oregon consumed 3.4 billion gallons of petroleum for transportation in 2012; its production of biofuels the same year was around one percent of that. When the biofuel production and total fuel consumption numbers are compared on a national scale, the discrepancy only widens.

According to Hill, the Salem facility has the capacity to produce about 18 million gallons of biodiesel per year, but the limited supply of used cooking oil has kept actual production down to 7 or 8 million gallons. To put those numbers in perspective, the state of Oregon consumes 3 million gallons of diesel per day.

SeQuential collects used cooking oil from over 7,000 restaurants and companies across Oregon, Washington and California. A few years ago restaurants would give away their waste vegetable oil, glad to be rid of some garbage. However, since the oil became a popular alternative fuel source, the golden gunk has become scarcer and pricier. “We’re doing our best to make sure all used cooking oil in the Northwest goes to biodiesel, but we’re going to quickly tap that out,” Hill says.

Hill thinks alternative feedstocks such as algae, hemp, and palm oil are unlikely to be economically viable solutions for the biodiesel industry. When the waste vegetable oil runs out, canola could be farmed, but that raises a debate over whether to use agricultural land to produce food or fuel. One proposed solution is to rotate between food and fuel production, using an energy crop to rest the land. SeQuential is looking for other local, low-impact, sustainable sources for increasing its fuel production.

Future biodesiel could come from an unexpected source: animal carcasses. “One of the waste stream problems in the Northwest is animal materials. We can take animal fat and turn it into fuel, not only biodiesel but biogas, which is a direct natural gas replacement,” Hill says. Yet, turning animal carcasses into fuel could be a controversial move for the company. Some of its consumers are passionate about animal rights, and SeQuential has received negative reviews on its Facebook and Yelp pages based on the choice to stock alpaca jerky. “We’re not driving the demand for animals,” Hill says, “we’re taking a problem waste material and finding a good solution for it.”

SeQuential Biofuels has had success on a regional scale, by offering a sustainable fuel source as an alternative in the community and becoming a model for green businesses. “The business that SeQuential is right now could continue at the scale it is for a very long time. We’d be happy and we’d be profitable,” Hill says. “But we’re really interested in more than that—that’s not good enough. How can we be a bigger part of a solution?”

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