Turning fats into fuel
Two chemists have invented a process to convert waste fat into biofuel that can be pumped directly into any petrol or diesel engine. Will their technology take off?
Inder Singh started inventing things as a child. A few decades and science degrees later, he and his wife Shradha have developed a new way to turn fat into fuel.
“Our technology can use almost any fat or oil, animal or vegetable, used or new and in any combination to produce the same high-quality fuels,” says Inder.
“It could use waste cooking oil from restaurants, for example. Unlike some primitive recycled fat fuels of the past, your car won't smell like french fries.”
Inder and Shradha's company, SBI BioEnergy, has opened a pilot facility in Alberta, Canada, that makes biodiesel. However, most vehicles can only use standard biodiesel in a fuel blend that is mainly petroleum-based.
So SBI is working on the next part of its fat-to-fuel refinery, which is designed to convert biodiesel into renewable petrol and diesel that are chemically indistinguishable from petroleum-based fuels.
This means they could be used in any engine, without the need to blend them with petroleum products.
Meeting of minds
Inder and Shradha have shared a passion for chemistry since studying together at university in India in the 1980s.
The pair went on to help develop several medicines, first in India and later in Canada. Now they are applying their chemical expertise to making sustainable transport fuel.
“I have enjoyed inventing and making gadgets since I was at elementary school,” says Inder. “My hobby of making things, combined with my knowledge of chemistry, helped me to develop new chemical processing equipment. In my mind, medicines and fuels are all chemicals and the same principles apply.”
The couple originally developed their chemical processing system to make pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. But they soon realised it could produce larger quantities than drug companies would ever need medicines. So, they began exploring ways to realise its full potential.
Over several years, they adapted their catalytic process to convert plant oils and waste animal fats into low-carbon transport fuels. They fine-tuned their processes until they could safely and cost-effectively produce biofuels of equal quality to petroleum fuel.
“We have given many years of our lives to this,” Shradha says.
Fuels of the future
Biofuels can be an effective way to reduce carbon dioxide from transport, if production is managed responsibly.
Because SBI’s process does not require hydrogen, use water or create waste, Inder says it should prove cheaper, safer and more environmentally sustainable than some other biofuels. Shell, one of the largest blenders and distributors of biofuels worldwide, has secured exclusive rights to develop and license SBI’s biofuel technology.
Under the agreement, Shell and SBI are exploring the potential for a commercial-scale application.
The challenge is to scale-up the technology in a way that is commercially successful.
By Daniel Fineren
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