As Luc Duchesne edges closer to bringing his mini bio-diesel refinery machine to the fuel-consuming masses, the normally talkative entrepreneur is becoming less expansive than usual.
It's an exciting, but also hush-hush, times for the former federal forestry researcher who became a green fuel businessman.
His Sault Ste. Marie start-up company, SITTM (Stick It To the Man) Technologies, is formulating an order book of potential Canadian customers who have signed seven memorandums of understanding to buy the machines once it's internationally certified.
New private and public investment has come in and the 10-employee firm is scoping out some manufacturing space in the city to expand and double their staff once the orders start rolling in.
Duchesne guesses this latest version of his fully working bio-refinery is about the "seventh or eighth" prototype. It's come a long way from the mad scientist appearance of his 'Frankentank' that was once hidden under a tarp inside his garage two years ago.
The old manually-operated contraption of hoses and tanks cobbled together by Duchesne, and business partners Norm Jaehrling and John Barbeau, has given way to a machine three times bigger and fully automated with push-button controls designed to run on its own.
It has advanced to the point where Duchesne doesn't want any photographs taken of its inner workings.
Before going mainstream, the last two technological hurdles to overcome is landing the coveted ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and CSA (Canadian Standards Association) certification to prove it's safe for use and that the fuel can be run through a standard engine.
Though the machine is designed to be consumer-friendly and fool-proof, foolish things do happen.
To avoid any mishaps, it is housed inside an enclosed steel box atop a trailer, built to withstand an explosion. The operator controls are mounted on the exterior.
A flash evaporator removes the danger of methanol vapours and vents it outside. In case of a fuel spill, a sump contains everything inside the box.
All the raw feedstock, be it vegetable, plant, seed oil, fish or animal waste, is poured from outside through quick-connect nipples. Sensors monitor the liquid levels inside the machine.
Since Day One, Duchesne's and the company's altruistic mantra has been about delivering energy independence to consumers by placing a small bio-diesel refinery in everyone's garage. But to take advantage of a federal subsidy and the market opportunities, "the beast" had to get much bigger. The current 12-foot-long machine will upscale to 20 feet, and the annual production capacity will go from 1.1 million litres to more than three-million litres.
The price tag per machine should run about $1.5 million. Duchesne is reluctant to place a return-on-investment time frame because of the cost variables in what type of feedstock is used, but promises it's a "fast return."
The company is also negotiating with partners to set up test sites across Canada. They are talking with an Ottawa trucking company, a fish rendering plant, an abattoir and a farmer in Alberta.
Duchesne, who categorizes the global food versus bio-fuel debate as "silly," said he's not interested in taking corn off anyone's dinner table in order to keep the world's engines running.
He would rather use the stuff society throws away, like fish guts, waste vegetable oil or underutilized plants and crops.
The empty and marginal fields throughout the Algoma district could be used to grow pennycress, a seed from the mustard family that contains 30 per cent oil when crushed. It's fuel potential has many tongues wagging in the international biodiesel community.
"This is truly the future," said Duchesne. "Are we creating competition with food? No, we're providing an opportunity with farmers. We have no intention to take on the established industry."
In the U.S., Duchesne said there is wide spectrum of opportunity. The company has approached state agencies to source waste oil or raise plantations of Jatropha, a non-edible shrub that's being used in Asian countries to make biodiesel.
To pay for all their years of research, Duchesne and Jaehrling (a former northeastern Ontario economic development officer) have run a side forestry consulting business but also have secured money from government-industry sources. This fall, they landed a $60,000 grant from Precarn, an Ottawa-based non-profit that funds innovative companies seeking to commercialize products.
Two shareholders have also bought some equity into the company and they expect to announce soon a high-powered board of directors to guide them into the global marketplace.
On the web: www.sittm.ca