Clever chemistry fuels business

With most biodiesel currently traded through the Rotterdam barge market, one UK company has revealed ambitious plans to convince the UK that home grown biodiesel from waste is the way forward 

Having set out to develop a ‘robust and flexible business model around low grade waste vegetable oils’, RGM Fuels (see page 6 Fuel Oil News July) is now in contract talks with several household names and fuel distributors.

“We’re at the stage of finalising volumes and prices with companies,” entrepreneur and investor Gordon McLure, told Fuel Oil News editor, Jane Hughes on a recent visit.

By combining waste with clever chemistry, Gordon, together with colleagues Dr Richard Jackson (PhD chemistry) and Dr Matthew Davies (PhD engineering), convinced investors of what RGM Fuels could bring to the market; a deal was signed with a private equity investor in 2011.

“Using a system specifically designed to process waste vegetable oils, we set out to produce biodiesel from waste to a very high standard,” added Gordon. “Developed by Richard and Matthew, our unique technology enables even very low grade vegetable oils to be processed; arguably this produces the most sustainable biodiesel available.”

High standards – convincing the market

Historically focusing on virgin seed oils, such as soy and palm oil, much investment was made in the original biofuel market, then the food v fuel debate arose and the sustainable fuel image was tarnished. An emotive topic, the food v fuel debate together with quality issues over biodiesel made from waste cooking oil in what was then a cottage industry, left a poor perception of biofuel and the industry acquired a cowboy image. Low grade feedstock led to badly made biodiesel, quality issues and fuel degradation whilst a DIY biofuels market grew up with carte blanche to make a little bit of diesel without paying any tax. Branded as unsustainable, biodiesel quality was questioned with a multitude of reasons proffered as to why it should not be used.

Distancing itself from this tarnished image has proved to be a challenge; but as companies increasingly look to support their corporate social responsibility policy, RGM Fuels reports that interest in biodiesel is growing again.

“The transition from seed to waste feedstock saw huge variations in the quality of biodiesel so there was a lot of resistance to what was seen as an unreliable product,” explained Gordon. “If made properly biodiesel from waste is totally reliable; in fact it can have standards more exact than those for mineral diesel. Once barriers have been overcome, hoops jumped and trials undertaken, we’ve been able to convince people of the product’s worth.”

Practising what it preaches, the team fuels its own vehicles with 100% biodiesel. “Presently, the B100 market is limited in the UK as the market is ignorant of its capabilities,” Matthew explained.

Down on the farm

A tree lined drive leads down to Quarry Hill Farm, the site of RGM Fuels first biodiesel plant, commissioned at the end of last year. Situated in the village of Lathbury in rural Buckinghamshire, the plant, which can produce up to 100 tonnes a day, was built as a pilot plant to prove the technology and the model.

“Setting up a biodiesel plant is not for the faint hearted. It’s easy to make biodiesel, but it’s very difficult to make biodiesel well,” said Matthew whose enthusiasm for the plant, which he likens to a giant Meccano set, is infectious.

With their specialist knowledge in chemical reactors, Matthew and Richard dismissed the expensive cracking and cooking method for esterification, favouring instead a reactor system that enables the use of a broader feedstock range which can be continually, rather than batch, processed. The system is also currently in use at plants in South Africa and in Memphis, Tennessee.

“We’ve kept the process lean and mean – new state of the art equipment sits with secondhand tanks and by speeding the process up, batch quality is more easily controlled.” Nothing is wasted with the glycerine produced in the process also sold.

“This plant was primarily set up for demonstration purposes, hence the secondhand tanks,” explained Gordon. “A new dockside plant is planned to allow us to scale up to a much larger production enabling product movements in and out by ship.” In the meantime, there are interim plans to expand the farm plant and/or buy an existing plant and convert it to run on RGM specific reactors.

Directors Gordon McLure, Richard Jackson and Matthew Davies Very interested in the ‘somewhat untapped gas oil replacement market’ - RGM Fuels believes the non-road mobile machinery and the combined heat and power markets ‘offer huge potential’ for its biodiesel

Directors Gordon McLure, Richard Jackson and Matthew Davies
Very interested in the ‘somewhat untapped gas oil replacement market’ – RGM Fuels believes the non-road mobile machinery and the combined heat and power markets ‘offer huge potential’ for its biodiesel

New market opportunities

Biodiesel from RGM Fuels has an 83% saving on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) over mineral diesel.

“Everyone says they want to be green,” said Andy. “But no one really wants to pay more to be greener.” (Most biofuel sold goes to those who by government directive must use a proportion of biodiesel/bioethanol under the RTFO scheme). However it does not cost to switch to biodiesel; in fact in some cases it actually provides cost savings to the customer.

Whilst RGM Fuels is interested in the transport market, the company’s focus is in supplying the non-road mobile machinery (NRMM) market and that of combined heat and power (CHP) which Gordon believes offer huge potential.

“We’re very interested in the somewhat untapped gas oil replacement market. By getting companies to try out our fuel first, we can dispel the poor quality myth. With quality and quantity guaranteed, we hope to make switching easier. If people are nervous about making a change, we can starting by supplying them with a B30 blend.”

An opportunity

“In 2008 this industry was falling off the edge of a cliff but now market change has brought opportunity,” says Gordon. “We went into this industry to be one of the biggest waste oil to biodiesel producers in the UK. We believe we have the technology and the experience to do this.

“Biodiesel is here to stay and so are we. If you’re looking for good quality fuel, please give as a call.”

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