Living the Biodiesel Dream

They gave up everything for biodiesel. Was it worth it?
By Luke Geiver | October 25, 2011

The three-member team at Organic Drive, a startup biodiesel production company based in the U.K., approaches its personal expenditures with the same analytical mindset as it would in optimizing yield or batch cycle times. The result of such an approach is a weekly food bill of roughly $5, for all three, according to Tom James, director and cofounder at Organic Drive. Although that weekly food bill might indicate incredible discipline (or sheer lack of appetite), it is, as James infers, a matter of self-inflicted circumstances.

Every member of the team left their consulting jobs where at one time or another each worked on problems related to everything from nuclear reactors to submarines, and of course, biodiesel production. None of the members, which includes Geoff Cunningham and Duncan Morrison, have children or mortgages (they share a bungalow). And, Organic Drive is a reality today because, as James puts it, the group didn’t want to “wake up” one day and have regrets at not following their passion to make biodiesel because of “inaction, apathy or lack of belief.” Their passion for biodiesel has helped create a 25 metric ton (roughly 7,500 gallons) per week facility that relies on a reengineered ex-brewing vessel as the main reactor.

It might sound like the team is merely living out some kind of fantasy, but James and the team have combined their engineering backgrounds and time at Cambridge University, along with countless trips to other facilities to build and operate a successful plant. In the next two months, according to James, production will increase to nearly 60 tons per week. “It has been operational now since the end of March,” he says of the used-cooking-oil-based refinery. “Most of our time since then has been spent redesigning and rebuilding purification systems,” along with work on yield and batch cycle times. “We know the statistics on startup company successes, and they aren’t pretty,” James says. “However, we believe with enough planning and hard work, we can buck the trend.”

The fact that the team has no stockholders to please benefits the team, and James says they’ve been able to move faster in the development process than the average chemical or biofuels company. For instance, he says, the team went from a clean sheet of paper to an operational and proven flash evaporator in just two weeks at a fraction of the cost. The team is also taking advantage of its contacts in North Africa to find untapped sources of used cooking oil, as well as working to develop a noncatalytic, supercritical reactor design for treating brown grease. “We are looking to undergo aggressive growth in the immediate future,” James says, adding that, “if we fail, it will not be for lack of effort.”

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