Braddock operation in high gear on used vegetable oil

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Thirty restaurants in Pittsburgh don't have to pay to have their used cooking oil hauled to a landfill. Asa Watten stops by a few times a month and vacuums it up.

Mr. Watten is the CEO of Fossil Free Fuel, a company that in its five-year history has converted the diesel engines of about 200 cars so they can burn vegetable oil.

This year, the doors of the operation have blown open. It has split into two companies, Optimus Technologies to focus on conversion of trucks, vans and generators in the garage in Braddock, and Fossil Free Fuel to beef up collection and distribution of used cooking oil.

The two have also teamed with GTECH Strategies, the people who have been filling brownfields with sunflowers for three years.

This cluster of 20-something CEOs has reaped grants worth $650,000 this year to collect and convert vegetable oil, to convert engines and to build two alternative fueling stations.

They hope for another grant of $900,000 to build an 18,000-square-foot processing and distribution plant in Braddock near the garage where they now employ one mechanic. Not including the construction workers who will be needed to renovate the space, the enterprise is projected to hire 110 people within the first five years, said Colin Huwyler, a founder of Fossil Free Fuel, who is now CEO of Optimus.

GTECH, which stands for Growth Through Energy & Community Health, was a 2007 start up of a group of Carnegie Mellon University graduates, among whom Andrew Butcher is the CEO.

"There is big business potential in tech conversion," he said. "This is a sweet spot for GTECH" -- the economic potential in eliminating an environmental liability.

"Climate change is so complex," he said, "but this is low-hanging fruit," keeping marginalized land and used cooking oil from becoming wasted.

Under GTECH's program ReFuelPgh, it collects cooking oil from households and restaurants. People can drop off cooking oil at GTECH's headquarters in Construction Junction in Point Breeze. Some people drop off used cooking oil at the garage in Braddock.

Dave Rosenstraus, the chief operations officer for Optimus, said the garage is also a fueling station for people who have had their cars converted. The cost is $2 a gallon.

The fuel is not the same as biodiesel, which is plant-based oil that is chemically changed using methanol, lye as a catalyst and glycerol, said Mr. Watten. Biodiesel is also mixed with regular petroleum so that it does not solidify when the weather turns cold.

Biodiesel can go into cars that have not been converted to run on pure cooking oil.

Pittsburgh generates an estimated 500,000 gallons of cooking oil, said Mr. Butcher. Restaurants either pay to have it hauled away to a landfill or cooks dump it in the alley or down the drain, "a real environmental concern."

One recent day, Mr. Watten drove the company truck to the Eat 'n Park in Edgewood Towne Centre and backed it up to the shed that holds the Dumpsters and a 55-gallon barrel of cooking oil.

He took the top off and removed a strainer that sits over a hole. The strainer was filled with french fry bits. From the truck, he pulled out a vacuum hose, attached one end to the 400-gallon collection tank on the back, cranked the vacuum engine and submerged the receiving end of the hose into the drum. As the vacuum rattled for about half a minute, he vacuumed out the drum.

He empties this drum every three weeks.

With increased capacity, the biofuels team will be campaigning to get more used cooking oil from restaurants and festivals, said Mr. Butcher.

GTECH collected all the waste oil from the Three Rivers Arts Festival and will be concentrating on small restaurants, while Fossil Free Fuel will work on the larger contracts, said Mr. Butcher.

One restaurant that began participating recently, the Harris Grill in Shadyside, fills "two 50-gallon drums that they come and take away every two weeks," said Tom Conte, the assistant kitchen manager. "I think it's a great thing for the environment."

Spak Brothers in Garfield has been contributing used cooking oil since it opened 21/2 years ago, said co-owner Ryan Spak. "We'd have to pay $50 a month for someone to take it off our hands and the other reason is we firmly believe in sustainable existence and reusing as much as possible."

Among the other restaurants that participate are PNC cafeterias and the prepared food departments of a Giant Eagle in Robinson and Whole Foods in East Liberty.

Mr. Butcher said he hopes restaurants can eventually write off the donation.

"We would like to develop an education model that links our vacant land reclamation project and our alternative energy collection program to job training in low-income areas," said Mr. Butcher.

A fraction of the oil GTECH collects actually comes from the sunflowers it plants to remediate contaminated land, 12 acres so far. The infrastructure for making biofuel directly from agricultural products "is not very advanced," he said. It takes an acre of sunflowers to produce 100 gallons. The biggest payoff from the crops is that "an environmental liability becomes an asset, such as gardens and parks.

"Now we're working on more sites and are committed to having something very real happen with our bioproducts."

The local Sprout Fund and the Claneil Foundation in Philadelphia have given grants for the conversion and collection project. The state awarded an Alternate Fuels Incentive Grant worth $600,000 to convert vehicles for the city of Pittsburgh, Giant Eagle, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Global Links.

The biofuels team brought Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities on board to go for the grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority. Clean Cities is a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored nonprofit whose goal is to build and support infrastructure for an alternative fuel market in Western Pennsylvania.

The Braddock Biofuels Block would consume a block of land at the base of the Rankin bridge exit at the entrance to Braddock, on which several abandoned buildings now sit, one a steel building that would be expanded and rehabbed to become a six-bay automotive facility with 7,500 square feet of fabrication space, a 2,000-square-foot research laboratory, and 3,000 square feet of office space. The other is an abandoned gas station. It would be rehabilitated to be a cooking and seed oil fueling station.

The approximately $1.6 million project would produce 2.5 million gallons of renewable fuels every year, said Mr. Huwyler.

"We've been very deliberate in the scaling up," said Mr. Watten. "Because once we scale up, we're going to be running as fast as we can."


This version removes incorrect information about the status of Fossil Free Fuel and Optimus Technologies. They are for-profit companies.


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