Local company thrives for better biofuel

February 17, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Two groups in the Bay Area are innovating ways to make biofuel even better for the environment. One is the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, the other a small company in Redwood City.

Although diesel is much more efficient than even gas hybrid vehicles in highway driving, biodiesel is under fire -- for what comes out of the tailpipe and what goes into the tank.

First, almost all biofuel today come from food crops. And already, government agencies are warning of water shortages and even food shortages. One solution to that is greasecycling.

That's biodiesel fuel that comes from cooking oil - from crops already grown and shipped anyway -- for restaurants. More and more kitchens are saving it for a new San Francisco program which gives it a second life, mainly to protect the sewers.

"We spend about $3.5M a year just dealing with grease in the sewer," says Lewis Harrison, Program Supervisor for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

But the other benefit is a renewable energy waste stream, grease, that can be converted to an alternative fuel that is actually cleaner for the air.

Which brings us to that other innovation -- that sweet smell behind a diesel truck is unburned fuel, mixed with noxious gases. To control it requires a catalytic converter coated with the most expensive of precious metals, platinum ($2,000 per ounce). The holy grail is a catalyst that incorporates gold, half the cost and twice as effective. Now, a Redwood City startup has developed a way to make that, using nanotechnology.

Dr. William Miller is the developer of the new technique at Nanostellar. He proudly claims, "We've been able to model materials that are more effective and lower cost in less than 3 years that took other more established methods perhaps 10 years."

This new method is called Rational Design. In it, a computer model uses quantum mechanics to direct laboratory experiments. It uses the lab results to refine the physics, then does it again. Through this cycle, Rational Design can create new material too complex even for humans to understand. But wait. There's more.

"Our first application is automotive emissions catalysts," says company President Pankaj Dhingra.

One day, when your bio vehicle emits cleaner exhaust, you can thank your mechanic - you're quantum mechanic.

The new gold catalytic converters are appearing European cars and trucks first, then, the US next year. The truck that picks up the oil to turn into fuel, actually runs on the recycled oil that it picks up. The PUC plans to enable San Francisco residents to contribute grease-for-fuel, too, in the near future.

------- Links -------

San Francisco Grease Recycle

Nanostellar Inc.
3696 Haven Avenue
Redwood City, CA 94063

Western States Oil
Alternative Fuel Program