Local engineering firm seeks new sources for biodiesel

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 | 5:01 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The fat, oil and grease from homes, restaurants and other sources have long been the bane of sewage treatment plants. The sticky waste can interfere with the treatment process, create blockages in the system and damage equipment.

Now, a Columbia engineering firm is using a state grant to figure out if unwanted oils and grease at large sewage plants can be recovered and converted into biofuel, which is generally blended into petroleum diesel and used to power vehicles and heavy machinery.

H2O’C Engineering received a $50,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on Aug. 12 to study whether these waste products can be viable sources of biodiesel.

Their study will initially focus on waste in plants located in Kansas City and St. Louis because they present the most favorable economies of scale.However, owner of H2O’C Tom O’Connor said the model will eventually be used in smaller cities and towns. “Since we are using public funds, we hope in the future that the study can be useful for people throughout the state,” O’Connor said.

Fat, oil and grease also present a problem in the Columbia sewer system. “It creates stoppages in the collection system, build-ups in pipes and leads to manhole overflows and basement back-ups,” said Steve Hunt, a civil engineer in the Columbia Public Works Department.

H2O’C will focus on the engineering side of wastewater treatment, while their Philadelphia-based partner, BlackGold Biofuels, will examine the feasibility of converting the waste product into biodiesel.

“We want to forge the path to see if it makes sense, and hopefully we can create a template for other communities with both domestic and economic value,” O’Connor said. He said the technique could be put into use within two years if the study yields favorable results.

In addition to the environment, converting waste into alternative energy comes with economic benefits as well. San Francisco has been at the forefront of reducing fats, oil and grease from the city’s sewers and wastewater plants. It spent more than $3 million in repairs in 2008, but anticipates saving much of those costs by reducing sewer back-ups, said Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City.

The grant to H2O’C Engineering is part of a larger effort by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to fund renewable energy studies in the state. The department awarded 16 other grants in the past week, providing close to $750,000 to examine potential projects.

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