Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Mare Island firm produces clean fuel

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

Revolutionizing the world's fossil fuel-driven economy may be a somewhat ambitious goal, but Vallejo's Bio-Energy Systems founder/owners say they're doing just that.

Jacques Sinoncelli and Michael Brown, partners in the Mare Island firm, say the idea is radical yet simple: Convert vegetable oil into diesel fuel and almost everybody wins.

"We take (nearly any type of) vegetable oil and process it for use in any diesel engine," Sinoncelli said. "The diesel engine was originally designed to run on vegetable oil, and was later adapted to run on diesel fuel, which was at the time a by-product of gasoline. So what we do is modify the vegetable oil so it mimics the density of diesel fuel to run in today's diesel engines." The firm uses mostly oils rejected for human consumption by the USDA, he said.

Sinoncelli said his firm could easily produce enough clean-burning, non-carcinogenic energy that is "less toxic than table salt," in its Mare Island facility to power the entire city of Vallejo. The plant now produces 7,000 gallons of bio-diesel daily, he said.

Sinoncelli, a 51-year-old San Anselmo resident, said he invented a hybrid production system based on a European model, using a microchip "brain" that monitors vegetable oil's viscosity and adjusts it "on the fly," producing a fuel of just the right consistency to power diesel engines.
"The idea is to do a process to remove the glycerine in vegetable oil and replace it with an alcohol. It's too thick otherwise," said Sinoncelli, a Paris native who moved with his family to San Francisco as a child.

The advantages are legion, Sinoncelli said.

"Diesel engines are more efficient than gas engines, the cost of fossil fuel production, from pump to pump, is much higher compared to vegetable oil's cost from planting to pump," Sinoncelli said. "You get three times more energy produced per unit of energy used. And with recycled oil, you get even more - seven times more than (regular) diesel."

Other advantages include that vegetable oil, unlike fossil fuel, is a renewable resource and often is a biodegradable by-product of food production.

"We hope biodiesel will start diminishing our dependence on foreign oil," Sinoncelli said. "It's grown here in the U.S. And it's a very green' fuel, producing 93 percent less particulate matter than diesel."

One byproduct of the bio-diesel process is methane, which can be used to run gas-powered engines, he added.

Though he could be mistaken for one in conversation, Sinoncelli is not a rocket scientist or even a biochemist. But, he said, he's a man with a deep interest in transportation and the environment.
A married father of one, Sinoncelli is a commercial pilot and has been a commercial bus driver and a marine captain, he said. He also worked on system designs for amphibious transportation projects, he said.

"I love to travel and I love getting into the energy aspect of it," he said. It's a long-time interest.

"My father died when I was very young. My mother was a professor of languages and loved traveling, and we traveled around the world as children," Sinoncelli said. "I played with (transportation) toys as a child. The fascinating thing was to take them apart and see what made them tick. I noticed that all these transportation methods were tied to fossil fuel, and I could see how this was starting to impact the environment and the political and economic landscape."
Sinoncelli said that in his travels, he's seen dependence on fossil fuel seems to keep some third-world countries impoverished. He said he thinks that bio-energy would permit these nations to grow and produce enough of their own energy to improve their population's living standard.
"This is great for farmers, independent producers could spring up, distributors," he said. "Independent power generating companies could develop and take some of the load off the power grid.

"A city like Vallejo could collect used vegetable oil from restaurants and run its own bio-diesel plant and fuel all its vehicles and maybe run the whole city on the fuel it produces itself," he added.

Sinoncelli said his interest developed as he investigated alternative fuels and transportation methods.

"When I was looking at electric cars a few years ago, I liked the idea, but the battery technology was lacking. There wasn't enough range in what was available to make it practical in the Bay Area. So I got interested in what technology is available right now, and biodiesel came to the forefront," Sinoncelli said.

Sinoncelli said he found an extensive program under way in Europe, and began looking into ways of launching a similar program here. He based his apparatus' design on what he learned in Europe, creating a patented dry, hybrid process. After five or six years of intense research, he was ready to give it a shot.

He contacted Brown, another commercial pilot and friend, and the two decided to team up on the project. They chose Mare Island because the facilities possessed the right attributes, such as size, access to rail, land and water shipping, and reasonable prices, Sinoncelli said. They moved to their new headquarters in November 2003 and began building a production facility. It's been operational for several months.

Brown, a 54-year-old married father of two living in San Francisco, said his "fierce environmentalism" is what fueled his interest in Sinoncelli's plan.

"I didn't know it, but this is a lifelong passion," Brown said. "I didn't know this stuff existed, really, until a couple of years ago."

Once he heard about it and comprehended its far-reaching implications, Brown wanted in on the action, he said.

"I was very excited about it from the get-go. I had always told myself that when I'm 50, I'd do something else. All I knew is that whatever it was, it was going to be quality. It took me a day or two to realize this was it," Brown said.

Both men said they hope the idea will catch on, and they plan eventually to open a chain of fueling stations when it does.

"When we started, we were only the 12th operator licensed by the EPA, and the only one in Northern California," Sinoncelli said. "We are now one of only three in California."

The fuel the firm produces is sold to Northern California wholesalers and the firm also designs and builds production systems for clients wishing to produce their own fuel.

"We sold one to a firm in Seattle, and one in Mississippi, and a small, compact unit is going to a Michigan soy bean farm co-op, which will make them completely self-sufficient, and provide them a way to contribute to the power grid," Sinoncelli said.

Bio-Energy Systems employs seven local people, and there are plans to expand. "We feel like we're on the edge of a new frontier," Sinoncelli said.

- For information on Bio-Energy Systems, call (707) 649-9100.

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