Photos by Anthony Plascencia, Ventura County Star
Originally appeared in the Ventura County Star
Biodiesel is the fuel of the future, entrepreneur says
By Esha Chhabra
Originally published 04:52 p.m., September 12, 2011
Updated 05:38 p.m., September 12, 2011
While examining his latest research project, a global selection of castor oil plants growing in his backyard, Mahesh Talwar, 55, tells of the time he tried to change the engine of his Toyota sedan to make it more fuel-efficient.
He thought he’d build a hybrid himself. Turns out, he didn’t just change the engine, but also ended up accelerating the car through his garage. Laughing now, he explains he accidentally connected two wires, leading the car to accelerate and plow through the garage wall of his previous home in Ventura.
He then points at a massive moving truck parked at the end of his driveway. He recently bought it to test new kinds of alternative fuel made from such things as shells of castor seeds, a plant that he said is hardy, easy to grow in dry, arid climates, economical and doesn’t compete with food crops.
A soft-spoken chemical engineer who came to the U.S. from India in search of a job, he quickly landed a post at Parsons Corp. in Los Angeles. He went on to consult with governments and businesses in Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Poland, India, Canada, and more on air pollution control technologies.
In the past decade, his interests have deepened in the green industry, which he refers to as a “recession-proof” industry, and led him to build his own biodiesel company, OceanAir Environmental LLC.
His first venture — transforming used cooking oil into biodiesel — was a Florida-based refinery, but it didn’t pan out. Since then, he has been identifying a variety of biowaste materials that can make an economical and eco-friendly diesel for cars already on the road. He is producing the fuel in a laboratory in Washington state.
“Most people think that biodiesel will be more expensive or they can’t use it in the cars they drive now. That’s not true,” he said.
His biodiesel would utilize unused resources such as agricultural waste, he said. Generally, waste from harvests is plowed back into soil or, years ago, would have been burned off. Today, Talwar said biowaste can be transformed into diesel and easily pumped into cars already on the road. And there’s no shortage of it.
The state of California has enough biowaste to power 50 percent of the state’s consumption, Talwar said. On a national level, the number is even higher: The U.S. has enough biowaste to power 70 percent of the country’s consumption.
Working from his Somis residence, Talwar wants to take his form of biodiesel to the market.
Biodiesel fuel already is on the market in Ventura County. Silvas Oil offers it at pumps located on Ventura Boulevard. Priced at about $4.20 a gallon, slightly higher than petroleum, corn-based ethanol and a blend of petroleum and soybean oil diesels are available to the public.
Such diesels, though, raise concerns about driving up food prices. Cognizant of this, Talwar stresses his product will use waste, not food crops. Plus, biomass derived diesel, he explains, has practically no carbon footprint whereas soy-based biodiesel is still carbon-intensive.
To make these options more available to consumers, however, Talwar suggests the public try to increase demand. Whether it’s through social media or purchasing power, consumers can influence how quickly these products become mainstream.
“Consumers can drive this movement by asking for it,” he says.
His efforts are in sync with statewide initiatives to increase biofuel consumption. A mandate issued by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls for 40 percent of the state’s biofuel supply to be produced within the state by 2020, thus bypassing the need for imports.
Heather Youngs of the Berkeley-based Energy Biosciences Institute, however, questions the state’s capacity to achieve this. Her findings, released earlier this year in a report, indicate that California will have to continue to import a significant amount of biofuel to avoid competing with agricultural production.
To illustrate that his biomass-derived diesel can help alleviate that problem, Talwar has been busy trying to secure funding for his company to begin production and operations. A slow economy, though, has led to “dried up capital,” he says.
He is concerned the U.S. has fallen behind in revolutionizing fuel sources. He said European countries such as Germany and rising Asian economies such as Malaysia are making stronger mandates for alternative fuel.
Talwar’s innovation in biomass-derived diesel has attracted interest and investors from abroad. However, he hopes to launch the business at home in the U.S. “In America, if you have an idea, you can make it happen,” he says, standing across from his castor experiment.