Biodiesel’s Next Stage?

Biodiesel’s Next Stage?

A smaller footprint and faster yield from more feedstocks.

Quietly—with the backing of private investors, the central Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the City of Isanti—the biodiesel industry looks about to take a radical leap forward in Minnesota.

A new biodiesel plant under construction now in Isanti and scheduled to start operating in May or June will produce just 3 million gallons a year to begin with—tiny by industry standards. But its Mcgyan process for producing biodiesel could change industry standards.

Unlike conventional biodiesel production, the Mcgyan process takes place in seconds instead of hours, uses no harsh acids or bases and produces no toxic wastes, consumes no water for washing salts from the fuel, and in fact produces small amounts of pure water as a byproduct, according to Clayton McNeff, who is a developer of the technology and the “Mc” in the Mcgyan name. He’s also the cofounder of Ever Cat Fuels, LLC, the Isanti plant, whose footprint will be significantly smaller than a normal biodiesel plant’s because the conversion taking place is a continuous-flow process, rather than a batch process that relies on huge reaction and washing tanks.

“All the catalyst is housed in a tube, and you just run your reactants”—any type of plant or animal fat plus alcohol—“through that tube and biodiesel comes out on the other side,” McNeff says. The catalyst in this case is a metal oxide, zirconia, that functions under high temperature and pressure conditions and is never consumed (that’s where the Ever Cat name comes from). At traditional biodiesel plants, the catalyst is caustic sodium hydroxide that creates a waste stream and has to be replenished. Ever Cat will still need large tanks to store its inputs and its finished product, but “a device, a tube that is six feet tall by six inches in diameter, can produce 2.2 million gallons” of biodiesel a year, McNeff says.

Maybe the relative quiet around Ever Cat is due in part to the origins of its technology: not a big agribusiness or major research institution, but mostly McNeff’s undergraduate alma mater, Augsburg College in Minneapolis. His former chemistry professor there, Arlin Gyberg, and a recent chemistry major, Brian Krohn, began exploring ways to produce biodiesel from waste oil several years ago. Gyberg sent Krohn to McNeff to continue the explorations during a summer research project in 2006, and McNeff added the high-temperature, high-pressure, and continuous-flow components to their catalytic process. Ben Yan, a senior scientist at McNeff’s SarTec Corporation—an Anoka business that makes yucca-based animal feed supplements—helped further the research and refine the Mcgyan process.

While SarTec did the research and development work, McNeff and his partners have formed another business, McNeff Research Consultants, that owns the intellectual property and handles licensing. Besides licensing the technology to Ever Cat, it has licensed the Mcgyan process to another start-up that includes McNeff on its board, BioCat Fuels, which is building a plant near Freeport, Illinois, and plans to put up more around the country.

For the Ever Cat plant in Isanti, McNeff has been circulating a private placement memo to potential investors this winter, and says that as of mid-February, it’s about “one-third filled.” Ever Cat will start out producing 3 million gallons, he says, but he’ll keep seeking investors because “it’s our intention to grow to 10 million and then to 30 million gallons within the next five years. We’re trying to gain enough equity at this point to be able to do that expansion as quickly as the opportunity presents itself.”


The McGyan Process for Biodiesel Production

Works with a wide range of feedstock oils.

Produces virtually no waste.

Converts feedstock to biodiesel in seconds rather than hours.

Doesn’t require strong acids or bases for conversion; uses zirconia as a catalyst.

Doesn’t consume catalyst.

Doesn’t require water to “wash” the fuel; produces some water as a byproduct.

Is a continuous process rather than a batch process; no large reaction tanks required, so the plant has a smaller physical footprint.

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