Biodiesel: Coming Home and Staying

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Jesse Therrien last came home two years ago. It took a bit of planning to make the 24 hr. drive from Bozeman, Montana to Sault Ste. Marie back in 2012. But this time around it wasn’t just Jesse and his wife Mandy making the long road trip. In tow were the newest additions to the family- Jax is 2 yrs. old and his little brother Henerick is 8 months old and of course Daisy- the family’s rescue pup. Jesse loaded up the entire lot into his biodiesel fuelled Ford Excursion. A trailer holding 70 gallons of biodiesel fuel was hitched to the back of the heavy duty truck and then they were on their way.

Jesse graduated high school from Sir James Dunn and then crossed the border to attend Lake Superior State University. He graduated with a degree in chemistry and a minor in biology and then the head for ‘the Land of Shining Mountains’ where he earned his PhD in biochemistry from Montana State University. Today he is the Director and Processing Engineer at Full Circle Recycling in Bozeman where he oversees the operations in the facility’s biofuel division.

Jesse T 2The young couple have created a lovely life in the beautiful state of Montana but they miss their families in Sault Ste. Marie and want to come home. However as Jesse remarked though family is a great incentive to move back there isn’t much opportunity for a biochemist in Sault Ste. Marie unless he creates it on his own. And that is exactly what he is attempting to do.

“I’ve started looking at biodiesel in the Sault and it seems like there is room for a biodiesel facility here,” he said. During his short visit with family while in the Sault Jesse has been connecting with various organizations such as the Economic Development Corporation and the Innovation Centre to postulate the feasibility of such a facility.

In 2009 the City of Sault Ste. Marie partnered with SITTM Technologies for a 19 month pilot project to determine how biodiesel would affect the City’s transit buses. Researchers determined that the buses did run more effectively and that there was less maintenance to the engine. Biodiesel was slightly more expensive but building a local biodiesel facility would address that point as well as create employment.

Biodiesel is a renewable energy source that is manufactured from used vegetable oil or clean produced in a generator. Biodiesel is produced from canola or soy and most recently the camelina plant. Diesel engines have been designed to run on a variety of energy sources and in particular peanut oil.  The newer Ford built diesels are designed to run on 20% biodiesel but in Sault Ste. Marie there isn’t a reliable place to purchase it.

The benefits of biodiesel are myriad. Biodiesel degrades quickly and is non-toxic making this an especially attractive fuel alternative for marina’s and ports. It is often quoted that biodiesel fuel is less toxic than table salt and that it biodegrades as quickly as sugar. Biodiesel also increases engine lubricity and reduces emissions of sulphur, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and the amount of particulate matter, or soot, associated with diesel engines.

Back in Montana Jesse’s business collects used vegetable oil from restaurants to convert into biodiesel fuel. “Vegetable oil is hard to throw out,” he commented. “You can’t put it down the drain because it clogs everything and you can’t put it in a dumpster because it leaks out. So you kind of need to get rid of it. Restaurants still pay for services that will take it away. We could probably charge restaurant owners for removing their vegetable oil but we don’t. Right now we buy the oil from about half of our clients and the other half let us collect it for free.”

With the help of government tax incentives biofuel profit margins can be respectable. “We can make biofuel for about $1.50 to $1.70 per gallon,” commented Jesse. “We sell it for the same price as diesel which in the US is about $4.00 per gallon.” With one generator Jesse is able to produce about 400 gallons a day. A generator can be purchased for about $15, 000 or built on site for less.

Jesse’s largest customer of biofuel produced by Full Circle is the Stillwater Mining company. Stillwater is the only U.S. producer of palladium and platinum. “When you’re mining underground you have a ton of exhaust blowing around and typically you have to install a massive unit for air circulation and ventilation,” he explained. “Stillwater hasn’t had to do that because they are burning 70% biodiesel in their machinery. The exhaust is reduced and so are the emissions. They have saved millions of dollars by not having to install ventilation just by choosing to use biodiesel.”

On a smaller production level farmers could thrice benefit from biodiesel creation. “The ideal situation would be a local farmer growing the oil seed crop. The seed is crushed to get the oil out and what is remaining of the seed is used for animal feed. The virgin oil is sold to a restaurant and then when it’s been used the farmer recollects it and processes it into biodiesel fuel to use on his farm machinery or to sell.”

In Canada a demand for biodiesel already exists. Most people are unaware that as of December 31st, 2012 the Canadian government mandated that all conventional fossil fuels used in transportation would be blended to accommodate 2% in biofuel. An even greater demand for biofuel could be manufactured by creating greater awareness of its benefits as a renewable energy source.

While in the Sault Jesse’s conversations with professional connections have been positive. “People seem excited about the possibility of creating biofuels here. It could create about a dozen jobs if you include farmers in the production. But the biodiesel jobs alone- the collection and production would create 4 jobs immediately.”

In the meantime Jesse would be interested in connecting with possible collaborators or investors. “It would be great to work with someone who was interested in more than the just the profit of biofuels and shared the goal of making the town more desirable to young people by becoming more green. Biodiesel is a sustainable fuel that you can grow yourself and I like that.”

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