The City of FOG

A bourgeoning solution to illegal dumping of fats, oils and greases in Atlanta’s sewers
By Ron Kotrba | March 12, 2013

Mayor Kasim Reed has a vision for his city of Atlanta: green the sprawling metropolis and make it a healthier, more sustainable place to live.  One of the ways Reed intends to accomplish this goal is to eliminate the gross misconduct of some area grease haulers who illegally dump trap grease—fats, oils and greases (FOG) collected from restaurants—into Atlanta’s sewer system to avoid paying the high tipping fees for proper disposal.

“I know the mayor has been very aggressive in addressing those things that will lead to continuing his movement toward a greener and more sustainable city,” says H. Lamar Willis, post three at-large councilman for the city of Atlanta. “One of the biggest harms for the city of Atlanta is that we’ve had a tremendous issue with those who collect trap grease and other FOGs and dump them into our sewer system.”

According to the U.S. EPA, sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) are discharges of raw sewage from municipal sanitary sewer systems. SSOs can release untreated sewage into basements or out of manholes and onto city streets, playgrounds and into streams before it can reach a treatment facility. SSOs are often caused by blockages or breaks in sewer lines. A major culprit for sewer line blockage is FOG. The EPA states that the U.S. sewer system infrastructure is worth more than $1 trillion.

SSOs present major health and environmental risks. Because SSOs contain raw sewage, they can carry bacteria, viruses, parasitic organisms, intestinal worms and inhaleable molds and fungi. The diseases they can cause range from stomach cramps and diarrhea to life-threatening ailments such as cholera, dysentery, infections, hepatitis and severe gastroenteritis, the EPA states. More than 2 million people in the U.S. become ill from 10 billion gallons of SSOs annually and the exposure to raw sewage. 

“We are still under a consent decree with the federal government that required us to do a complete overhaul of our water sewer system,” Willis tells Biodiesel Magazine. “We’re about $2.5 billion into that overhaul. We’re one of the few cities around the country that did not get federal aid to do that. There are major cities that have done this prior to us, and they received major aid—we did not get that. And because we did not get that, we had to add the cost onto our rates. We had to increase our water rates and, of course, our citizens haven’t been completely happy about that.  But part of the problem is that ultimately our water sewer issues have a lot to do with what people are putting into it, which includes fats, oils, greases, and all of those things that help clog our water sewer system.” 

One potential solution to help protect Atlanta’s sewer system was presented to Willis last year—one that tied him up in an ethics investigation of which he was later cleared. According to reports from Atlanta Progressive News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Willis had lunch with Paul Marshall, managing director for an Atlanta-based startup FOGFuels, a company seeking a contract with the city to establish a trap grease collection center on city property at one of Atlanta’s wastewater treatment facilities in order to convert the material to biodiesel and have an available outlet for all of the water and other contaminants once separated from the lipids. It was reported that after the luncheon, Marshall sent an email to FOGFuels employees stating that the company had a new team member in Willis. After Willis had voted to approve a no-bid (“sole-source”) contract with FOGFuels, Atlanta Progressive News Editor Matthew Cardinale filed an ethics complaint that halted negotiations between FOGFuels and the city of Atlanta. The investigation ultimately determined Willis had no financial interest or stake in FOGFuels and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Biodiesel Magazine has spoken with Kevin Olson, FOGFuels chief financial officer, a number of times in the past several months,  to discuss progress in FOGFuels’ contract negotiations with the city of Atlanta and the startup’s grease collection and biodiesel production business plan.

“Our go-to-market approach is to co-locate with a wastewater reclamation facility, a piece of property owned by city, and take over a portion of that to dump our high-strength wastewater into their digesters,” Olson says. FOGFuels plans to divert approximately 50 MMgy of trap grease from being illegally disposed of in Atlanta’s sewer system. From that 50 MMgy of trap grease, the lipid yield is expected to be about 5 percent. This equates to the delivery of about 140,000 to 150,000 gallons of trap grease FOG a day.

Georgia Tech chemistry professor Arthur Ragauskas, FOGFuels’ senior scientific advisor, says his role with the company is to provide “a sound, academic, intellectual perspective” on what FOG is and its variability, and the chemistry that will be encountered when processing brown grease to biodiesel. Trap grease is mostly water, followed by a varying amount of fatty acids, depending on who’s providing it. Following that, Ragauskas says inorganic components in the material include trace amounts of copper, iron, lead, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, nitrogen chloride, calcium and sulfur. “The amounts vary depending on where the samples are sourced,” he says. Organic compounds may include acetone, low-molecular chlorinated materials from chlorinated drinking water and biological runs, plus trace amounts of cleaning solutions. 

“Tipping fees are probably the biggest operating line-item cost of a trap grease hauler,” Olson says. “That’s why they choose to improperly or illegally dispose of it—they’re saving a lot of money to do that. This is why we’re providing a lower-than-market tipping fee, to encourage them to stay in compliance as well as to save money on their tipping fees.” To encourage grease haulers to pay tipping fees, albeit lower than market price, by disposing of their loads at a future FOGFuels collection and processing center rather than illegally dumping it for free into the city’s sewer infrastructure, the company has established the Green Waste Haulers Association. “There’s a lot of economic incentive for them to join,” Olson says, over and above the lower-than-market tipping fees. These incentives may include discounts on general liability insurance, discounts on repairs and replacement tires, and similar measures. Also, members in the GWHA will receive a “proper badge of operation,” Olson says. “They can say, ‘I’m a member of this organization, which means I’m an ethical waste hauler in compliance with all appropriate rules and regulations.”

Olson says now that the contract with Atlanta is set, FOGFuels plans to begin construction third quarter of this year on its $14 million grease collection and biodiesel production facility scaled to process 50 MMgy of trap grease into 2.5 MMgy of biodiesel. He says it will take eight to 12 months to complete construction. When asked how FOGFuels intends to finance the facility, Olson only says, “We have a number of different options.”

Not only does Olson hold project financing mechanisms close to his vest, but he and Ragauskas are also tight-lipped about the conversion process they intend to use, other than saying the so-called FOG2D process, which is trademarked and patent-pending, combines two existing technologies already proven commercially. “It’s really the coupling of technologies that’s important,” Ragauskas says. In addition to material cleanup as it comes in and a “robust pretreatment process,” Ragauskas says, “the free fatty acids have to be converted over to some kind of ester prior to doing transesterification under alkaline conditions. And you can either use methanol, or any form of alcohol, which would include glycerol.”

The plant will employ a batch process, maybe two or three reactions, followed by water wash and two-column distillation to purify the fuel. “The batch process takes more time but the economics change when you have a negative-cost feedstock,” Olson says. “There isn’t a shortcut to this. If you’re willing to go through the steps that are needed to convert it, it can be done—it’s just a question of time and money. We’re willing to take the time in a batch process, and we’re willing to spend the money, and everyone else is trying to cold-fusion, black-box this thing and short change the process.”

While much of the focus of this effort is restoring the health of the city’s sewer system and protecting the health of Atlanta residents, let’s not forget about the locally produced biodiesel. “You also have the benefit of potentially being able to purchase this fuel at a cost below what we’re paying currently in terms of market rates for fuel,” Willis says, adding, “and coupled with the mayor’s desire to have a green city that is approaching the challenges of sustainability head-on, you get something that works for the city of Atlanta.” Olson also suggests that the facility will generate $15 million in green jobs payroll over 10 years and the creation of 25 to 30 green jobs for the area.

In the end if, for whatever reason, FOGFuels’ FOG2D process does not live up to its expectations, there’s a performance bond in play with the city of Atlanta. “The way it stands now is they’ll be developing a facility on city property, so the only investment we have is the use of our land to build the facility,” Willis says. “The performance bond will essentially leave the city in the same position it would have been in if FOGFuels had never approached the city to do the deal, so they’ll use the performance bond to remove the facility if their process or technology turned out not to work. After all the tens of millions of dollars FOGFuels would have put into the facility and research and everything, if it doesn’t work, the performance bond holds us harmless and puts us in a position that we would not be harmed as a city, which makes it a lot easier for us to be in the position to have this conversation.” 

FOGFuels plans to use the future success of the Atlanta facility as a model to replicate in metropolises across the U.S. “Many times when looking at biofuels, it is asked, ‘Can we displace 20 to 30 percent of the petroleum we use?’” says Ragauskas. “Certainly FOG is generated on the level to allow you to do that. Remember, biofuels frequently provide a really valuable opportunity to take a waste product that society has a difficult time getting rid of, then doing the chemical conversion to liquid fuel that we value and burn. Instead of landfilling it or, in other parts of world we read reports where it’s dumped illegally or, worse yet, reintroduced into the food stream, this will provide a viable commercial market to solve a problem that society has, and how to get rid of it. I think that’s equally as important as the big, global energy problem that we face. And on a regional basis, this provides a renewable source of biodiesel that solves regional issues of sustainability.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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