Monday, May 12, 2008

Fueling speculation

Fueling speculation
Regional biofuel proposals scruitinized
From MediaNews Group reports
Article Launched: 05/11/2008

A rendering of the new Go Green Biofuels plant proposed to open later this year on Lemon Street in Vallejo. (Courtesy photo)

The debate over biofuel production and its impact on world food prices may be raging elsewhere but apparently isn't chilling enthusiasm for it regionally.

Two separate projects aimed at developing biofuels and exploring the markets for their use are grabbing attention from Vallejo to Woodland.

In Vallejo, American Canyon resident Rodney Pitts said this week he plans to catch the biofuel "wave" with a planned manufacturing plant on Vallejo's Lemon Street near the water.

Meanwhile, plans to build a "Biomass Research Center" on County Road 100 in Woodland are moving forward. The project would house a two-year, $3 million biofuel project conducted by researchers from around the state.

Pitts said his Vallejo plant would produce fuel from waste materials from the nearby treatment plant and other sources, and produce no toxic waste of its own. Not even dirty water.

"Every city has waste materials it doesn't use, like brown oil, that can be used to make biodiesel," said Pitts, 42, a married father of a 4-year-old son. "Material from the waste treatment plant is now broken down into methane, brown oil and other elements and mostly winds up in landfills or the ocean, but we can make fuel out of it."

Pitts, a former Navy man and self-described "computer science guy," said he hopes his firm, Go Green Biofuels, will be able to build a 40,000-square-foot facility on 25 acres. The plant will eventually produce 30 million gallons of clean-burning fuel annually, he said. And not only will the plant be self-powered, it will generate energy to "feed into the grid," Pitts said.

The idea is to use special, self-re-generating algae oil to create fuel, which doesn't impact food supplies the way ethanol does, Pitts said. And unlike traditional fuel refineries, Go Green's process produces no toxic by-products or smell, he said.

"The only byproduct is glycerin, for which there is a growing demand for use in making plastics and from chemical companies, like Dow Chemical, who already want it," he said. "It's used in soaps, pet feed stock, all sorts of things."

In the past, some have questioned whether algae oil can be efficiently produced in enough quantity at a low enough cost to be a viable fuel option. That was before gas prices soared, Pitts said, adding that the fourth generation technology his firm will use, would address those issues.

Vallejo's chief building official said what he's heard of Pitts' concept sounds good, but it's only a concept so far.

"He's met with some city staff members, including myself and presented his ideas, but no plans have been submitted to us," West said.

Plans for a biomass research center in Woodland are much further along.

In fact, the innovative could enter the public comment phase as early as this week, according to the project's chief engineer.

If approved by the Yolo County Planning Commission, the Woodland Biomass Research will bring together leading researchers from across California, said the engineer, Donald Taylor.

Taylor works for West Biofuels LLC, a San Rafael-based energy technology start-up that will manage the center.

University of California researchers will operate the center, focusing initially on developing energy applications for so-called "biomass residues," including corn stalks, rice straw and tomato residues, Taylor said.

Biomass refers to living and recently dead biological material that can be used as fuel or for industrial production. The most common biofuels, such as ethanol, are made from corn and other feed grains - a process that some say is contributing to rising food costs.

By making use of agricultural cast-offs, the Woodland-based center would be staying away from energy sources that compete with food production, Taylor said.

"We're coming at it from an economic perspective," he said this week. "We'll be working with all the things we tend to throw away that can be used - residues that have zero value or very low value otherwise."

The center's main focus will be the production of clean-burning transportation fuels, Taylor said. He estimated the project's demonstration phase would be complete by mid-2010.

• Rachel Raskin-Zrihen of the Vallejo Times-Herald and Robin Hindery of the Woodland Daily Democrat contributed to this report.

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