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Heifer fuel

Wed, 17 Apr 2013

Unlike most people, when Michael Doyle drives past a herd of cattle grazing in a field, he doesn't see future tenderloins or T-bones. He sees fuel.

The company Doyle co-owns, North Star Biofuels, is about to start production of biodiesel at a new $15 million, 20,000-square-foot plant in Watsonville, Calif., about 60 miles south of San Francisco.

But this is no ordinary biodiesel, derived from feedstocks, sawgrass or other typically “green” sources. North Star's primary raw material is from the byproducts of beef and chicken production—inedible remnants that would otherwise go to waste.

Though past efforts to make fuel from animal waste proved too difficult, Doyle has pioneered a new method involving continuous high pressure and high temperatures that turn animal oil and methanol into a cost-competitive and highly pure, sulfur-free form of biodiesel. The completely closed-loop process uses no water and produces no odors or hazardous byproducts.

“The goal was to not use an oil [from a source] that would destroy the rain forest,” says Doyle, an engineer whose interest in eco-friendly fuels dates back to his work in the 1990s on alternative fuels in Finland.

Doyle proved out the method over the past two years, building and operating a $3 million pilot plant that ultimately was capable of producing about 2,100 gallons of biodiesel daily—or about 50 barrels of fuel per day.

“It was a lot of work, but I've built a lot of companies that people said just wouldn't work,” Doyle says.

Based on that success, Doyle entered a partnership between his R Power Fuels and Agri Beef Co. of Boise, Idaho, to create North Star Biofuels. Agri Beef will supply the rendered animal oil, hauled in by train from Washington state, to allow the plant to annually produce 23 million gallons—1,500 barrels per day— of biodiesel.

Agri Beef, Doyle notes, can supply enough animal tallow to produce up to 15,000 barrels per day—or 300 million gallons per year. Depending on the success of the first plant, up to five more facilities could be built to produce biodiesel from the available supply of animal oil from Agri Beef.

Starting in May, the North Star operation will begin ramping up to full production, a process that should take roughly 60 days.

About half the plant's B100 biodiesel output will be sold directly to a major oil company, which will offer biodiesel at the pump for the first time on a large scale in California. The fuel will also be sold locally.

And while North Star's production will double the amount of biofuel on the market in California, Doyle knows it's a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the millions of gallons of fuel burned in the state and across the United States every day.

But it's a start—and the fuel also qualifies for the highest possible carbon credit because it comes from a source that otherwise would have gone to waste.

“It's a renewal resource,” Doyle notes.

Another burger, anyone?

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of Autoweek. Click here to get Autoweek delivered to your door biweekly.

By Bob Gritzinger