How a UO dropout found success by turning the college’s cooking oil into biofuel
When a column of black smoke rose from Ian Hill’s burning pickup truck on the side of the Sacramento highway, the former University of Oregon student had a sudden realization. The sight of the flaming fossil fuel backdropped by the agricultural scenery made him think, “I’m going to start my own company.”
Hill is the co-founder and managing partner of SeQuential Biofuel in Eugene. SeQuential collects used cooking oil from hundreds of locations, including UO, to be processed into biodiesel fuel – a non-fossil fuel that burns 75 percent cleaner than traditional gasoline, according to Hill. Producing about 5.5 million gallons of biofuel a year, SeQuential is Oregon’s only biodiesel processing plant and it also sells biodiesel at two retail locations in Eugene.
Hill had been considering starting his biofuel company long before the moment his truck began to smoke.
He discovered biodiesel at UO while studying environmental sciences — a major that Hill says was un-optimistic and depressing.
“I came out of it desperately wanting there to be some concrete thing I could get my hands around that was moving toward positive change,” Hill said. He eventually dropped out in 2000.
He found that concrete solution when working as a librarian in college. The job gave Hill enough free time to study biodiesel on forums.
“It meant I had many hours to sit in front of the Internet with nothing to do,” Hill said.
Hill used online forums to collaborate with likeminded biofuel visionaries in Japan, Africa, Europe and South America about how people were making their own fuel.
The simplicity of creating biofuel was intriguing to Hill and his friends. The process involves filtering the oil, adding a chemical catalyst and the oil separates into gasoline and glycol.
“A villager in the remote … Himalayas could make fuel for a diesel generator by doing a simple chemical reaction with their animal fat,” Hill said.
Hill’s garage held his first fuel processing operations, making enough to fuel six cars. They were not selling it yet.
“It was enough to prove to us that it was very doable, and that the technology was simple and it worked,” he said.
Now, UO sells all their used cooking oil to SeQuential, which then drives it to Salem and processes it into gasoline, according to Tom Driscoll, director of dining services at UO.
“[SeQuential] had come to us some years ago interested in what we were doing with our used frying oil,” Driscoll said. “We ended up making a deal with them.”
Six kitchens at UO sell their used frying oil to SeQuential for about $200 a year, according to Driscoll. Driscoll said that the UO used to have to pay to remove their used cooking oil before arranging the deal with SeQuential, making the current situation a win-win.
SeQuential sells its processed fuel to Chevron, BP, Texaco or to retail stations, according to Hill.
UO was interested in building its own biodiesel converter last year at their new kitchen, located at the corner Columbia Street and 17th Avenue, when it opened last spring. The idea fell apart when Driscoll realized the scope of the operation would be too big and too dangerous because it would require housing 55 gallons of flammable methane gas on campus.
At the time that Hill began looking to sell his product, biofuel wasn’t commercially available in Oregon. The lack of competition and the opportunity to provide consumers with an environmentally friendlier option contributed to SeQuential’s success, according to Hill.
“We were kind of right at the beginning of biodiesel,” Hill said. “Our timing was just right.”
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