PreProcess Founders Featured as Who's Who in California Biodiesel
Chemical engineers Christina Borgese and Marc Privitera, both past presidents of the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers at UC Santa Barbara, were colleagues at Clorox before joining the team at BioFuelBox. At BioFuelBox, they worked together to design, build, commission, and operate the world's first commercial scale supercritical biodiesel production plant using waste trap grease as its primary feedstock -- and won the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneer award in 2010, the same year Twitter did.
The supercritical method uses high heat and high pressure and is able to process feedstocks with free fatty acid levels of 85% and higher, according to Christina. The ability to take more and more waste out of landfills is a passion that Marc and Christina share. "We love biodiesel because it's straightforward, it's urgently needed, and it's a chemical engineer's dream -- you have messy multiphase feedstocks; you get to use centrifuges; decanters and filters; the reactors could be high sheer, high pressure, high temperature; you have hazardous materials to respect; you have low level constituents you have to separate using some creative methods; and you top it off with some precision distillation tricks -- it's everything we do," Marc said.
Christina and Marc are proud of the work they did in scaling supercritical processing from the bench, to a pilot in San Jose, to a 1 mgpy plant in Idaho, using techniques licensed from the Idaho National Laboratory, but they are quick to point out that supercritical processing is not all they want to be known for. PreProcess, Inc., the process development and process engineering company they co-founded after BioFuelBox succumbed to the economic downturn, allows them to offer their unique brand of chemical engineering for entrepreneurs through a range of services in waste repurposing, foods, and biofuels. Among their many projects, they are currently working on alternative energy related systems that are in various stages of development, construction, and commissioning in California.
"PreProcess is chemical engineering for entrepreneurs. We are fast, we are hands-on, we can pivot, and this is what sets us apart," Christina stresses. She says that they do first of its kind technologies and loves to jump into the details of how to scale up from an idea to the joy of completion. Those details are described at length in Marc and Christina's article Biorefining Technology Scale-Up in Biomass Magazine. Doing what hasn't been done before also sometimes involves advising clients on development paths, filling in gaps of information, and intellectual property concerns, including helping them identify exactly what might need to be protected and then determine if it should be patented or kept as a trade secret.
The company is committed to the critical issue of safety and rigorous, iterative quality measurements, starting with feedstock characterization, an all too often underestimated part of the production process. Christina and Marc point out the need to get exact measurements for six aspects of the feedstock you are going to be processing -- before you buy it and regardless of whether it's being called yellow or brown grease -- in their article Quick and Dirty Feedstock Characterization: Practical advice for cash-strapped community scale biodiesel plants in the August 2011 issue of Biodiesel Magazine.
Educating clients, local permit agency staff, and students is an important part of the work of the PreProcess team. In addition to presenting at conferences, writing articles for industry journals, and offering information and documents for download on their website (Grease Trap Waste Backgrounder and Sulfur Removal Strategies for Biodiesel), every fall the duo returns to their alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, where they guest lecture on the real world aspects of UCSB's chemical engineering curriculum. PreProcess also offers an Engineering Bootcamp built on practical applications to help get new hires and folks changing roles get off to the right start.
As part of his long-standing mission to educate the next generation of chemical engineers (he has many under his belt so far), Marc recently developed a course at San Jose State University, Biofuels Process Engineering, which requires undergraduates and graduate students to work together in teams to create a presentation pitch to build a biofuel plant. He's more poet than engineer when talking about the ability of biodiesel as an American product to contribute to both energy independence and environmental solutions and the part he is playing to home grow a special breed of creative engineers with the technical know-how to make that happen.
PreProcess is CBA's newest business member. The company joined just after our February 4th conference, while still in Las Vegas, and is eager to get involved. As they describe the "lunch and learn" program they developed to educate local permit agency staff, it's easy to envision this versatile duo scaling up that process and deploying it on behalf of biodiesel at CBA's next lobby day in Sacramento. We look forward to it.