Lest anyone doubt the snail’s pace of “disruptive” technology, consider the progress of Forge Hydrocarbons Corp.
Forge is a made-in-Alberta textbook case of a new process marching towards money-making commercialization. The global alternative energy world is watching closely as Dr. David Bressler’s revolutionary biomass refining process, converting the dirtiest of cooking oils and animal fats to actual full-octane gasoline and diesel, is ramping up.
From a pilot project producing 550 litres (or four barrels) of gas/diesel a day, Forge Hydrocarbons is now graduating to a pre-commercial plant capable of turning out 125,000 litres (or 310 barrels) per day.
Despite a relatively smooth development path – from fundamental to applied research, to experimental pilot plant production and now the final step before full commercial production – it has taken the still-young (early ’40s) food, bio-engineering and bio-refining professor 13 years to be this close to full-scale production.
“Three years for the fundamental research,” says the University of Alberta researcher. “Five years for the applied research, three years to set up the business and the experimental pilot plant, a couple of more years to develop the scale-up expertise. We wrote our first grant-capturing idea for this project in 2003.”
Major support has come from both investors and Canadian research funding agencies as diverse as NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council), SDTC (Sustainable Development Technology Canada), Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Alberta Livestock & Meat Agency, all of whom liked what they saw.
On the business front, Forge Hydrocarbons has, pardon the pun, forged ahead. One of Canada’s leading alternate fuel entrepreneurs, BIOX bio-fuel founder and CEO Tim Haig, was so enthused about Bressler’s process that he left BIOX to become President and CEO of Forge Hydrocarbons, the company Haig and Bressler formed to bring the technology to commercial fruition. As well as a partner, Bressler is the company’s Lead Scientific Advisor.
Since before Forge Hydrocarbons was incorporated, TEC Edmonton has worked with the University of Alberta spin-offer, assisting with technology management know-how and business development expertise.
Forge Hydrocarbons’ technological breakthrough is about the turning of fats into hydrocarbons without hydrogen or catalytic additives. Hydrogen and catalytic additives are the most expensive aspects of other biofuel conversion processes. At most refineries, a secondary plant must also be built to produce hydrogen.
In Bressler’s world, the feedstock is heated with water to create a mixture of fatty acids and glycerol. Once cooled, the fatty acids are separated, then re-heated to release oxygen which, in turn, creates pure octane-punching molecules of actual diesel and gasoline.
Until now, no one has created this process in a cost-effective way.
Environmentally, there’s more good news. Forge’s process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90% compared to gas and diesel from conventional refineries.
Three years of ramp-up research in the pilot project at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre has been tremendously instructive. “We’ve found ways to re-circulate, to enhance the use of the raw materials, to modify the chemistry to reduce waste and improve quality,”
says Dr. Bressler.
“We realized we could produce a better product with a new process design. For six months, we shut down the pilot project for substantial re-engineering and modification.”
The time spent tweaking, re-designing and re-engineering has paid off. “We have a ribbon around this process,” says Bressler’s Forge Hydrocarbons associate Neil Vanknotsenburg. “It’s ready for prime time.”
But, says the always cautious Bressler, “we have to make sure we can support our mandate.”
Forge Hydrocarbons “drop-in” fuel meets a government directive that all transport fuels in Canada must have 2% to 4% biofuel in their mix. The fact is Forge fuels will be of much better quality than most biofuels. Being actual gas/diesel molecules, they do not dilute the octane power of conventional fuel.
Another advantage of the Forge way: As construction and refining costs are relatively inexpensive, small plants can be built close to biomass feedstocks.
Forge Hydrocarbons could, in the future, challenge conventional biofuel production by producing a higher quality biofuel on its patented platform from the same feed stock used in biofuels, i.e. crop oils and fats.
It would appear just a matter of time, a few short years, before Forge Hydrocarbons bio-fuel plants start sprouting up across Canada.
By then, Bressler and his research team will be working on Forge Hydrocarbons, Version 2.0. “We’ve got a really cool new idea,” says Bressler. “If it works, it will dramatically reduce the reaction time. But right now it’s just a theory.”