ELLSWORTH — With all of the attention focused on climate change, anything that reduces carbon emissions is bound to be seen in neon.
The lights are bright over at Coastal Energy, where owner Alan Joseph is using enzymes to convert waste vegetable oil into biofuel with a very low emissions output.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates pure biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 75 percent when compared to petroleum diesel.
Joseph said his company is the only one in North America using this particular process to create biofuel, which is a renewable fuel derived from biological material.
The key elements in Coastal Energy’s process are enzymes, which are similar to a key fitting neatly into a lock.
In nature, enzymes are responsible for all the biochemical reactions within living organisms, including breakdown of food.
Joseph said he and his partners have put together a bundle of four to five enzymes that can convert the oil to biofuel in a cost-effective manner.
“We’re getting the enzymes from around the world and then are creating our own formula,” he said.
The enzymes break out the glycerin in the oil and then isolate the monoglycerides, triglycerides and diglycerides and convert them into the fatty acid methyl ester.
“Once we convert those into methyl ester, then it’s ready to use in any vehicle, any furnace, anything that combusts,” Joseph said.
The difficulty, he said, is making it happen at relatively low temperatures and with minimal electricity to make it cost-effective.
“We have achieved this,” Joseph said.
Coastal Energy also is teaming up with SeaChange Group, LLC in Brunswick, which has strong Maine Maritime Academy ties, to use the glycerin byproduct that Coastal is creating as boat fuel.
“They have successfully performed some trials already with emulsifying the glycerin into fuel for boats for emissions reduction,” Joseph said.
SeaChange Group, LLC and Maine Maritime Academy, he said, have their own proprietary process with additives.
Joseph said there are still some residual emissions in his production of biofuel, but they are marginal.
He said his group has applied for a grant to purchase more laboratory equipment for a six-month trial charting enzyme production.
They anticipate running the trial in late fall.
Ultimately, “we can do about 200,000 gallons a year in our little plant,” Joseph said. “We’re going to put it in right in with the fuel oil.”
Coastal Energy began collecting vegetable oil from residential and commercial customers in 2011, but a third party converted the oil into biofuel.
However, Joseph was experimenting making his own fuel from the vegetable oil.
He said the biodiesel industry has been under pressure due to rising concerns about the availability and pricing of feedstock.
A feedstock is any renewable, biological material that can be used directly as a fuel, or converted to another form of fuel or energy product.
Joseph said that for reasons of cost and availability, cheap, low quality and non-food oils have long been considered for biodiesel feedstock.
But in chemical processing, these feed materials often require difficult and costly refining in order not to harm the enzymes.
In addition, chemical processes often require harsh chemicals and expensive high energy use.
“In this system, the enzymes convert the free fatty acid and triglycerides. There are no caustics,” Joseph said. “And you do it at 82 degrees. There also are no salts in the glycerin drop so it comes out clean and clear like water.”
A conventional conversion process would require that the material be heated to 140 degrees and use caustics.
“Enzymes can take on free fatty acids and convert them into methol ester, which is biodiesel, without using pre treatment acids,” he said. “The worse the oil is, the more the enzyme loves it.”
Joseph said he and his partners have been working on the process for about two years and are now going into production.
“The whole process is revolutionary,” he said. “This is the direction the biodiesel industry is going to go in because it’s more effective and cleaner.”