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Frank N. Carlson/Medill

A collection of crude glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production that converts to an industrial staple for Mark Rice's business based in Northbrook


 

The road from hunger in Haiti to a start-up in Northbrook -- fueled by biodiesel

by Frank N.Carlson
May 06, 2008


 

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Frank N. Carlson/Medill

Mark Rice, CEO of Biofuels Technology LLC, displays his collection of biodiesels made from various feed stocks.

When he hears about rising food prices, political instability and desperate hunger in Haiti, Mark Rice wonders about some cosmic connection between the impoverished Caribbean nation, biodiesel and himself.

That’s because the 45-year-old CEO of Biofuels Technology LLC, in Northbrook, once spent a year working in Haiti at his family’s fats and oils factory.

It produced biodiesel for use as a solvent in the chemical industry and Rice’s new business specializes in taking a potentially noxious byproduct of biodiesel and converting it into a safe, inexpensive industrial staple.

Now, many around the world are blaming biofuels, including biodiesel, for increasing international food prices and leading to starvation in developing nations just like Haiti.

“This is so ironic. For me, it’s like karma or something,” Rice says with a note of disbelief and an idea for using Haiti’s jatropha tree as a solution to the problem.

Haitians currently use the plant for fencing because it is thorny and inedible, so goats stay away from it. But Rice and others see a possible cash crop in jatropha for biodiesel that could bring investment and jobs to a nation that greatly needs both.

While many may think of biodiesel production as a new technology, Rice’s family has been in the biodiesel business for three generations, and the technology has been around for more than 100 years. 

“You can make biodiesel in your kitchen, and I’ve done it, and my 6-year-old has done it,” says Dr. Steven Bertman, chemistry professor at Western Michigan University, who spoke recently at a biofuels forum at Loyola University Chicago. “It’s a trivial process.”

The reason people may think of biodiesel as something new may be due to the increased use of it as an alternative to petroleum diesel. Before prices for petroleum diesel began to rise dramatically, Rice says few people considered using biodiesel as a fuel substitute.

“Until two or three years ago,” Rice says, “if you made, methyl ester, or biodiesel, you would never think to replace diesel fuel with that because diesel fuel was so cheap.”

But there is also confusion resulting from the similarity of the terms “biodiesel” and “biofuel.” Biofuel is a catch-all term that has recently surfaced to describe ethanol and other biomass fuels as well as biodiesel. But ethanol and biodiesel differ in substance, production and uses.  

“Biofuels in this country is synonymous with ethanol, and there are a number of negative features of ethanol that are not shared by biodiesel,” says Bertman, who takes particular umbrage with people in the media who use the terms willy nilly.

Bertman explains that those negatives of ethanol include a lower energy density than biodiesel, meaning fewer miles per gallon, and the need to convert gasoline engines to run on E85, an ethanol blend.

“So they’re completely different molecules, they come from different parts of plants, they’re used in different engines,” he summarizes.

Ethanol is now made almost exclusively from corn while many await the commercial availability of new feed stock technologies such as algae and switchgrass. Biodiesel can currently be produced from a great variety of feed stocks, including animal fat, soybean oil, canola oil and yellow grease, the spent vegetable oil from restaurants. 

This wider variety of feed stocks means more flexibility when prices rise on certain commodities like soybean oil, which has nearly tripled since 2005.

But the production of biodiesel does have its problems.

In addition to contributing to higher food prices and a “food vs. fuel” debate, which many in the agribusiness and biofuels market dismiss as unfair scapegoating, the production of biodiesel yields a chemical byproduct called glycerin.

This byproduct makes up about 10 percent of the biodiesel produced but is useless to most biodiesel producers in its crude, unrefined form. And worse, if not treated properly, glycerin poses an environmental hazard.

In early March, reports surfaced that Alabama Biodiesel Corporation, a biodiesel plant outside Tuscaloosa, had dumped its glycerin into the local streams, depleting oxygen supplies and killing fish. Other reports of glycerin dumping from biodiesel companies around the country have surfaced in the past year.

“People have been talking about what to do with the glycerin for a long time, and there are lots of different options or possibilities,” Bertman says. “So there’s room for innovation there.”

That’s where Rice’s business comes in.

Biofuels Technology LLC takes the glycerin, which it typically purchases from the biodiesel producers, and refines it so that manufacturers can use it to make products such as soap, cosmetics, industrial lubricants and antifreeze, among others.

“So I’m purchasing a byproduct typically, and then I’m refining that or doing something with that that is very helpful to the biodiesel industry and very helpful to the environment,” Rice says. “I feel good about that.”

And he also feels good about his investment. As a seasoned investor who managed an Internet stock fund in the 90s, Rice sees great potential for growth in biodiesel and the alternative energy market in general.

“So there’s a tremendous amount of energy and money and entrepreneurial spirit going into that effort,” Rice says. “And I think we’re in, like, the first inning. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of it.”

As for the dangers posed by yet another investment bubble, Rice says he does see parallels to the Internet bubble, but in a good way.

“There were many flameouts in the dotcom world and there was too much money thrown at too many ideas too quickly and so a lot of people failed,” Rice says. “Yet still, the technology of the Internet has transformed the globe, in my view…and that is very similar to the biofuels thing.”

And this brings Rice back to Haiti. 

One area Rice sees as a potential biodiesel material is jatropha, a tree that grows naturally in Haiti’s tropical climate and yields a seed rich in oil.

“Haiti could be like the Saudi Arabia of the Caribbean,” Rice muses.

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