Fossil free and politically correct: A biofuel company’s founder shares his story
Filled up your tank lately? Not only is it expensive, but it’s also hard – and, after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, getting harder – to morally justify supporting the oil industry.
But fortunately, alternatives exist. In addition to being an efficient way to use energy-rich, renewable substances like corn grain, fermented sugar, or even vegetable oil from a restaurant fryer, biofuel can be more cost-efficient than petroleum – approximately 50 cents cheaper per gallon. Biofuel also produces fewer carbon emissions than crude oil.
Dave Rosenstraus founded Optimus Technologies after realizing biofuel’s potential to save money and protect scarce and politically-controversial petroleum. Now the company is installing systems in commercial vehicles to convert biomass into liquid fuels. Here Rosenstraus shares some takeaways from his experience launching a biofuel business.
Dowser: How did you get into what you’re doing?
Rosenstraus: It started as a hobby, for myself, and then it grew into a business organically. After I graduated I was going on tour with my band. One of the big expenses of touring is gasoline. Our band, politically, felt not very comfortable with giving the money we were getting from shows to Mobile and Exxon and other oil companies. So when I found out there was an alternative, it seemed imperative to do it. Once I did that people said, ‘Oh you have the skills, can you help me do the same thing to my vehicle?’ So it turned into a for-hire thing.
How dramatically does the cost of transportation go down with biofuel?
With the products our company uses, it’s 50 cents cheaper per gallon to use biofuel. But if you look at what it actually costs to have crude oil in this day and age, which is in fact an entire military operation, the costs are much bigger than we can handle. And, environmentally, the emissions are reduced.
What was that process like, of turning it into a profitable business?
At first I was working out of my driveway. People would hire me to install something they had ordered off the Internet. Then we opened a shop and started making our own parts. Then we moved to Braddock [Pennsylvania] in 2007 and started doing mail-order parts and kits. We branched out into two separate companies when we moved to Braddock – one does the oil collection and one makes parts.
Were you learning as you went along?
In the beginning I had to learn about auto-mechanics, which I knew nothing about. And then as we started to produce our own parts, the second stage was doing metal work, machining, and welding – making parts fit into a vehicle that weren’t meant to be there originally. You’re putting in an additional fuel system, so you have all the same components – a fuel tank, a filter, a fuel line – and then there are some additional components, like valves. And they all have heat exchangers, that’s the trick. Biodiesel in winter, it becomes thick. And oil needs to be heated up to reach a viscosity that’s acceptable for going through the injectors. Essentially you’re trying to make the fuel mimic what oil does.
How many clients did you have at first?
Between 2004 and 2007 we installed a few hundred [biofuel systems]. Most of our clients are [regionally-based.]
How have you been getting the word out?
We’re just on the brink of beginning a new set of projects. Up until 2008 it was primarily passenger vehicles and now we switched our business model so we’re doing primarily commercial clients – large trucks, heavy machinery, generators. We have a number of projects lined up for the next two years.
What changed about your business when you began servicing commercial clients?
We want to make a product that a fleet owner is going to benefit by – through diligent feedback. So if they’re going to put a side skirt on their tractor trailer for example, it might save them one mile a gallon, but over how many gallons that a big tractor trailer uses, it might add up to more savings than it cost them to do that modification. So we’re going to have a more heavily monitored and computerized system that will actually collect data from use. And we’re at the end process of that pilot.
Interview has been edited and condensed.