Midland company driving sustainability and growing communities with biodiesel

In a couple of years, imagine pulling up to the pump and filling your tank with french fry grease, pond algae, soybeans, and cow fat. People are doing it now: read this cheeky but informative piece in MSN - Money for proof. But it should be even more accessible through conversion technology that Richard Shull and his Midland company are testing in their quest to create biodiesel.

More than powering vehicles with alternative fuel, what Shull really wants to do is create sustainable communities in underdeveloped countries. And he's built his entire company with that idea in mind.

The former mechanical engineer turned his attention to biodiesel after a 23-year career at Dow Corning in Midland. Now, Shull and his partners at Point Hope Energy in Midland are in the process of testing the catalyst they've created in a lab at the CMU Research Corporation, a business incubator at Central Michigan University.

Once the technology is commercially available in a couple of years, the biodiesel then will be produced by refineries and sold to companies with truck fleets, as well as other customers who currently use diesel fuel to power vehicles and machines.

With lower emissions and the ability to convert various oils, materials, and waste byproducts, biodiesel as a renewable energy source is a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum. And it can be substituted for any process or engine that normally requires diesel fuel.

"It's a much better fuel than petroleum," he says. "Biodiesel is the most sustainable transportation fuel. Our technology makes it even more sustainable."

The quest to find a way to create biodiesel from various oils and waste byproducts is not unique to Shull's company. But it is the only company of its type in Mid Michigan, Shull says.

Point Hope Energy also is unique in its approach and technology. In the biodiesel world, the conversion process from waste product to usable fuel usually requires a liquid catalyst. But Shull and his company have developed a solid catalyst that will do the job more efficiently and at a lower cost to companies and refineries. Instead of having to continually replenish liquid catalysts for the raw-material-to-fuel conversion process, Shull's solid catalyst will allow companies to reuse the solid catalyst over and over again.

The technology also makes it possible to convert a broader range of oils and waste byproducts into usable biodiesel. Current biodiesel conversion processes sometimes require different liquid catalysts for different raw materials. But Shull's technology provides more of a one-size-fits-all approach to the conversion process -- the same solid catalyst is used for any number of raw materials in the production of biodiesel.

For these reasons, "there's a real high interest in a solid catalyst" in the world of biodiesel and the companies that want to produce it, Shull says. "It's the holy grail of biodiesel production."

In today's petroleum-dependent society -- especially on the heels of the Gulf Oil spill debacle -- Shull also is well aware of the commercial implications of his discovery. But unlike most people at the helm of a startup, Shull is not dreaming about wild commercial successes and landing on the cover of some national business magazine once he finally hits it big.

He's actually dreaming about Mexico. That's where the idea for his company began to take shape several years ago.

Over the years, Shull and his family have gone on a number of church mission trips to rural Mexico -- villages of about 200 people who lived within an hour of a larger community. And while the missions were successful in many ways, Shull started noticing a disturbing trend -- some of the improvements weren't sustainable because the people in the village did not have a way to make a living within their community.

To make a lasting impact, Shull eventually realized that he would have to develop a way to create a sustainable communities and economic opportunities for all the people he was trying to help on his mission trips.

Biodiesel can be produced from readily available agricultural products, and that is one reason why Shull is convinced his catalyst technology will help create more sustainable, rural communities in underdeveloped countries.

"We think that our company can provide an environment that provides hope for a better future," says Shull. In fact, it's that belief that led to the idea and the name for his company, Point Hope Energy. "There are all kinds of things that you can put in motion if you have the right kind of starting point to put people to work in a community."

The company's end game -- creating sustainable communities -- also drove the development of the company's technology, he says. The technology does not require a lot of training or someone with a four-year degree.

With Shull's technology, people will be able to turn agricultural products and other raw materials into biodiesel that can power tractors, cars, and generators. They also will be able to use it as fuel for cooking meals and heating homes.

Point Hope Energy is less about growing the company for commercial uses, Shull says, and more about helping communities grow through new economic opportunities -- fueled by biodiesel.

"We think that's one of the things that is philosophically different about us," he says. "Our interest as a company is not to make millions. A lot of what we do is to drive hope for a better economic future."


Photos:

Richard Shull, Point Hope Energy president, holds a jar of biodiesel extracted from used cooking oil in his Mount Pleasant lab.

Used cooking oil from area restaurants, left, must first be strained for solids, right, before it can be purified into biodiesel.

Richard Shull uses a small mini plant in the garage of his Midland home to test some of the systems and processes for his company.

What looks like a tangle of pipes, valves, and gauges is actually a mini plant used to make biodiesel from used cooking oil.

The red and yellow container catch the two products -- biodiesel and glycerin -- as part of the separation process.

Richard Shull stands outside his garage with his functional biodiesel mini plant.
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