New biodiesel company sees potential in Cayman market

Waste management is currently an issue at the forefront for every resident as the George Town landfill becomes an ever-growing problem.  

Caymanian Dow Travers and his colleagues, Brown University alums James McGinn and Han Yang Lee, have established a renewable alternative energy company on island that they say manufactures biodiesel fuel from waste products, creating a clean source of energy.   


Dow Travers, perhaps best known to residents as representative of the Cayman Islands in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, says he has always been interested in the environment. To that end, he decided to major in geology and biology at Brown University in Rhode Island.  

“The degree was a study of earth systems history and climate change by looking at stratigraphic and fossil records, the inextricably linked geology and biology of our planet,” he says. “With this degree, it was my intention to be able to improve the environmental sustainability of Cayman.” 

Travers says that when a couple colleagues at Brown, James McGinn and Han Yang Lee, were thinking about a biodiesel startup, they saw the opportunity for the three of them to establish a renewable fuel source in Cayman. In May last year they received their Trade and Business license for Island Biodiesel. 

In order to produce biodiesel, the company collects waste cooking oil from restaurants, which would otherwise have to be disposed of in an expensive manner. The Department of Environmental Heath currently ships waste oil to the United States to be properly disposed of there. However, by collecting the waste directly from restaurants, Travers says, they aim to encourage recycling at as many restaurants as possible.  

“We currently pay each restaurant a dollar for every container of waste cooking oil they save us, in an attempt to promote recycling practices,” he says.  

The process  

McGinn, who received an honors degree in biomedical engineering from Brown, is responsible for the transesterification process required to convert waste product to biodiesel.  

He explains: “The process uses methanol and a catalyst, potassium hydroxide. When these substances are added to filtered and refined waste product at high temperature, the methyl ester known as biodiesel is produced.  

“Biodiesel, along with environmental benefits also has beneficial lubrication properties and a higher cetane number that can lengthen the life of a diesel engine. The lubrication properties are especially useful when using low-sulfur diesel.”  

The company manufactures its product in a leased warehouse behind CUC, though they say they intend to move to their own location in the coming months.  

“We are using an American Society for Testing and Materials-approved processor built in the U.S. which utilizes high pressure and temperature to accelerate the reaction between the waste cooking oil and methanol in the presence of a catalyst,” McGinn explains. “This end product is then ‘dry-washed’ by flowing the biodiesel through a large column of densely packed polymer beads which remove any excess methanol, water or particulate matter, producing a high-quality product that can be used in any diesel engine in blend form.  

“However, we are currently looking into importing a continuous biodiesel processor that uses a high-frequency magnetic impulse principle.” This produces a reaction that uses less methanol, catalyst and power than current technologies, he adds. 


Lower emissions  

Biodiesel, Travers says, is a renewable fuel source and petroleum diesel replacement that, when blended, is compatible with any diesel engine without modification. 

He says there are significant environmental and health benefits associated with biodiesel. 

“The U.S. Department of Energy has shown that lifecycle CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions are reduced by 78.5 percent when using biodiesel over petroleum diesel, and carbon monoxide emissions are reduced by 48 percent,” he says. “Additionally, particulate matter is reduced by 47 percent, sulphates are reduced by 100 percent and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are reduced by 80 percent.  

The reduction in PAH is particularly important, he says, as they have been identified as potential cancer causing compounds. “So overall, there are significant benefits to the environment and particularly by reducing pollutants into the marine environment.” 

As well as producing drastically lower harmful emissions than standard fuel, biodiesel is non-toxic and biodegradable.  

He points to tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he says confirm that biodiesel is 10 times less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar. “You can even drink pure biodiesel,” Travers says. 

Apart from fueling diesel engines in vehicles and marine transport, there are significant benefits in the production of electric power on island, as generators can burn a clean and renewable fuel source, he says. 

Currently the biodiesel produced has been welcomed by a few companies. 

“We began selling biodiesel in January,” Travers says. “It’s been received really well by a few companies, including Living the Dream Divers and Eco Adventures, who jumped at the opportunity of helping the environment and their bottom line.” 

The owners of Living the Dream Divers, husband and wife team Gary and Liz Frost, built their dive business from their desire to provide the best Cayman diving experience. Committing to green solutions for powering their dive boats has been an important priority. 

“We made the switch to biodiesel two months ago and are happy with the product so far,” says Gary Frost. “It makes sense that Living the Dream Divers considers the environment in everything we do. Island Biodiesel has provided us with a seamless service so far, and we are more than happy to continue buying its biodiesel.” 


Opportunities for growth  

The three colleagues have a great many more ideas for which their product can be used.  

“There are a number of ways that biodiesel could be employed in Cayman to both help the environment and the health of its population,” Travers says. “A study by the National Resource Defense Council in the U.S. has shown that children who ride on school buses are exposed to four times the diesel exhaust of someone who rides in a car directly in front of the bus. Those excess exhaust levels are 23 to 46 times higher risk than ‘significant cancer risk’ levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and federal guidelines. Biodiesel can therefore significantly reduce the exposure of children to harmful emissions.” 

As far as boats are concerned, Travers says biodiesel offers a more environmentally friendly alternative to diesel.  

“It’s nontoxic, biodegradable and renewable. Biodiesel’s effect on fish has been deemed ‘insignificant’ by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The Channel Islands National Park uses biodiesel in two of its vessels and other diesel equipment. The use of biodiesel and other renewable resources makes the Channel Islands National Park petroleum-free and, with the right government, support could substantially reduce the use of petroleum in Cayman,” Travers believes.  


Global recognition  

The United States is becoming far more aware of the benefits of using such a renewable and clean source of energy. The state of Minnesota mandates that all diesel fuel must be at least 5 percent biodiesel. In July this mandate will increase to 10 percent. Illinois requires the use of 2 percent biodiesel in all diesel fuels. In 2010 Pennsylvania required the use of 2 percent biodiesel in every gallon of on road diesel fuel sold in the state. New Mexico has similar rules for all state agencies and public schools, and San Francisco runs all government vehicles on biodiesel mixed fuel.  

In the U.K., the government’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) requires suppliers of fossil fuels to ensure that a specified percentage of the road fuels they supply is made up of renewable fuels. The RTFO also requires companies to submit reports on the carbon and sustainability of the biofuels.  

In Germany, biodiesel is made from oilseed rape and is used extensively as 100 percent biodiesel by commercial vehicle and bus operators across the country.  

Travers says the initiative is in keeping with the government’s mandate to promote alternative fuel transportation. 

“In 2013 the then-premier Ms. Juliana O’Connor-Connolly unveiled the National Energy Policy, which states under ‘Transport Policy 2: Consider a prudent encouragement of alternative fuel transportation…. Explore the technical and commercial viability of limited blends of ethanol in gasoline and biodiesel in diesel (up to B5),’” Travers reports from his research. “She later said ‘that government would pursue new energy technologies that help reduce costs as soon as they become viable and could benefit the country.’ 

“The opportunity is here to substantially improve the quality of the environment and at a much cheaper cost,” he says. “We are waiting to hear from government with the necessary support that would enable us to take production to the next level with significant benefits to the whole island.”

Dow Travers and James McGill at Island Biodiesel