It’s been a decade since the scientists at McNeff family-owned SarTec in Anoka, a natural-product feed-supplement supplier to farmers, collaborated with a Rhodes scholar and chemistry professor at Augsburg College to patent and commercialize what observers hailed as a cutting-edge process for creating biodiesel from waste oils, fats, weeds and algae without using harsh chemicals or generating waste.
Clayton McNeff, 47, a doctor of chemistry out of Augsburg and the University of Minnesota and his father, Larry McNeff, 77, an entrepreneurial chemist who left Cargill 35 years ago to start what is now SarTec, spent three years researching, planning and building Ever Cat Fuels. It’s a $9 million pilot plant that opened in 2009 in Isanti, Minn. Twenty-six employees produce 3 million-plus gallons of clean diesel annually.
However, diesel prices have been cut in half since they started to less than $2.50 per gallon, crimping profit and interest. Ever Cat has controlled costs by doing its own blending with petroleum-based diesel for customers who want 10 percent to 100 percent biodiesel.
“We’re still here, producing 3 million gallons a year from waste [vegetable] oils,” Clayton McNeff said last week. “None of it is oil from [soybeans] or other foods. We survived because we are able to look around at what’s available and buy the lowest-cost input material to make our fuel.”
The McNeffs now plan Act II for Ever Cat. But they will need deeper pockets than their own to scale things to the next level.
They have received two U.S. patents on their “Greenoline Process,” an improved “thermochemical process” that can produce more than biodiesel through a “green, hydrothermal, catalytic cracking process that directly converts biomass [feedstocks] to biofuel” without needing to dry the biomass.
The new process uses a common metal oxide catalyst that is nontoxic, and the process occurs in prepared water that can be recycled again and again.
“It is a clean process that produces green gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and bunker oil biofuels,” Clayton McNeff said, adding that Ever Cat gained the patents in July on a process that was reviewed by peer scientists last year in the journal “Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining.”
The combination of supercritical water and the use of a metal oxide catalyst produces hydrocarbons found in petroleum products in seconds, he said, through a direct conversion from feedstock to fuel.
The McNeffs and minority investors have invested unspecified millions over the last decade. They lack the resources to take the souped-up process from laboratory to commercial plant. The McNeffs believed in 2009-10 that they could cash flow their initial plant, thanks to then-high diesel prices and licenses that they would sell to farm cooperatives, who would use it to make biodiesel from the syrup left after corn ethanol is produced. The thought was they could also sell to farm cooperatives in Third World countries that would invest in small biodiesel reactors. However, low oil prices suppressed business for Ever Cat.
“We’re looking for any way to do this,” said Clayton McNeff, who believes that higher oil prices and energy that doesn’t pollute eventually will prevail. “We’re open to any path forward that makes sense. The opportunity is vast, and … beyond our meager [resources] to manage this to scale.
“It needs a champion. We took the ‘Mcgyan Process’ to market,” he said of the original process, named for the founding scientists. “That cost several million, a big cookie to bite for our company.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.