University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Fields of Gold

Chemist David Boocock has developed a clean-burning fuel from organic waste

On Hamilton’s Pier 12, just west of the Stelco plant, construction crews are hustling to complete a $25-million curiosity: a refinery that turns grease into, well, gold. The refinery, owned by Biox Corp., is a warren of tanks and pipes that will begin producing biodiesel fuel this fall. The fuel will be sold to refineries that will blend it with conventional diesel. Environmentally friendly, biodiesel is typically made from soybean oil. But Biox’s state-of-the-art refinery can produce a cheaper, cleaner-burning and more energy-efficient version of this commodity using rendered fat from, of all things, animal offal.

The Biox story begins with a University of Toronto chemist named David Boocock, who, in a flash of brilliance, combined the insights gleaned from academic inquiry with the consequences of an agricultural disaster. Fifteen years ago, Professor Boocock was investigating ways of unlocking the energy in organic substances such as wood and waste sludge. Along the way, he discovered a method for producing a souped-up version of biodiesel using waste animal fat that’s twice as energy-rich as the conventional biodiesel fuel. An added advantage: when burned, Boocock’s biodiesel releases significantly less pollution than petroleum-based fuels.

Unfortunately, the biodiesel producers weren’t interested because Boocock’s process was too expensive. Fast-forward a dozen years to the outbreak of a handful of cases of mad cow disease in Alberta. The two events seem unrelated, but the discovery of the sick cows precipitated the collapse of the export market for rendered waste fat, a refined animal grease used in pet food and livestock feed. Huge holding tanks of the stuff were accumulating across the country. Boocock realized that his refining process could now be used to produce biodiesel at a competitive price. Through the university’s Innovations Foundation, Boocock found investors to commercialize his patent, and the venture began to take shape, with the professor on board as a consulting scientist.

Biox’s plant, which will eventually pump out 60 million litres of biodiesel fuel a year, will boost North America’s modest biodiesel production by 60 per cent. And even though the environmentally friendly fuel accounts for only a small fraction of the blend used by diesel vehicles such as buses and trucks, many experts believe the industry is on the cusp of explosive growth. Last fall, the Bush Administration introduced a biodiesel tax incentive that is spurring a rush of investment. And Biox’s backers have their eyes on what’s happening across the Atlantic: the European Union has ruled that by the end of this year all diesel fuel sold on the continent should contain at least two per cent biodiesel. Europe currently produces almost two billion litres of biodiesel annually, and production is expected to increase significantly in coming years.

How’s that for a fat chance?

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