"We've been in the industry for 97 years, and we're very good at knowing how to make the right fuels for the right specifications. We transform natural oils to look exactly like the petroleum-based fuels of today. Our fuel can come from camelina, which is grown in dry-land wheat rotation. Nature provides the energy to create the feedstock—we just have to nudge it in the right direction. With a single feedstock, we can make fuel for the military, commercial aviation, trucks, and cars. It's challenging to get the whole value chain—agriculture, chemistry, logistics—to work together. We're not going to change over from petroleum anytime soon, but there will be other solutions too."
Fast Company: Is biofuel from Honeywell technology available commercially anywhere?
Jim Rekoske: Not yet, but the technology is being installed right now at the Valero Energy Corporation's refinery in St. Charles, Louisiana. They'll be making mostly diesel fuel in that facility, but they're also able to make jet fuel. It's a drop-in fuel, which means it doesn't need to be kept separate from the other diesel. That's a big selling point. We've got somewhere around $10 trillion of infrastructure and distribution in the world—we can't replace that, and we can't duplicate it. Drop-in fuels are a way for us to get more capital efficient in terms of how we utilize renewable fuels. In our business model, we are actually like the architects of a new house, if you will. If someone is going to build a new process to develop a technology, you need an architect to build the house, and you need a general contractor. We're the architect: We design the facility with our proprietary technology. But we don't own the facility—we license technology and design facilities that other people use to convert natural resources into fuels for people.
What's the biggest challenge to bringing biofuels to the market?
From an adoption standpoint, the biggest challenge is making this fuel available to people. The Valero plant will take about $250 million to $300 million of investments to complete it. When it's done, it'll produce 10,000 barrels a day. That's a lot of fuel, but that's also a big investment. So someone has to be certain the technology is going to work.
And you are certain, yes?
The Air Force Thunderbirds and Blue Angles have used our fuels. If the most advanced flight demonstration teams in the world are using it, it's clearly an advanced fuel and one that meets all the standards, even in that rigorous of an environment.
Why are plant oils good for fuel?
Natural oils are very much like fuel. In fact, if you go back a millennium or so, these types of oils were actually used in lamps to provide light and heat for people. They burn and they're effective, but they don't look like the hydrocarbon fuels we use today. So we transform them to make them look the same.
Besides getting people to start using this fuel, what else do you have to keep in mind as you continue to develop this technology?
We need to balance our need to make food as well as fuel. The way things are today we probably don't have enough land and renewable resources to convert all the petroleum over to biofuels. But a substantial percentage—maybe 5 percent in the short term and 20 percent in the long term—can be converted over.
You mentioned being challenged by the supply chain—can you talk more about that?
Doing the chemistry was actually pretty easy; the hard part was getting industries that don't necessarily work together on a regular basis to all come to the table and work together. We've had to orchestrate that to create a business segment. Without us in the marketplace trying to bring these people together, this segment wouldn't exist. You just don't see farmers in Montana working with energy corporations. So we've had to build bridges to make those connections.
What else is Honeywell doing with biomass-based energy?
We've got other technologies to generate energy—electric power and heat, for example—from renewable resources. Those are in the marketplace now. We're taking agricultural forest waste, wood waste, and instead of taking the material and directly burning it to create energy and steam, we generate an oil from it with a process called rapid thermal processing. That creates an oil that has more energy density, which means we can get more energy out of the overall biomass.