Michigan business turns used cooking oil into sustainable fuel
From chicken nuggets to fish and chips, fried restaurant foods have one thing in common: They all generate tons of used cooking oil (UCO) per year. But for Thumb BioEnergy, UCO is not a waste product. Instead, the Sandusky, Michigan, enterprise creates value by using UCO as a feedstock to produce biodiesel fuel. Renewable, cleaner burning biodiesel benefits communities in Michigan – and beyond – with fewer carbon emissions, better fuel lubricity and a cleaner environment.
Entrepreneur and electrical engineer Leon Jackson founded Thumb BioEnergy in 2008. After selling an electronics business in 2001, Jackson sought a new business endeavor and discovered the appeal of biodiesel.
“I’ve always been interested in the environment and clean energy. I heard about biodiesel and started researching it as a potential business,” he recalls. Attending the 2008 National Biodiesel Conference and Expo in Florida convinced Jackson that biodiesel could be a viable venture in his home state. After the conference, he bought the required production equipment and secured a supply of UCO from a friend’s restaurant. Within a few months, Thumb BioEnergy was off and running at the Jackson family’s farm near Sandusky. Early biodiesel customers were local farmers and a nearby gravel pit.
“We operated there until 2012 when we realized we had to become larger and more sophisticated,” Jackson says. “It’s easy to make biodiesel but difficult to make the ASTM-grade fuel that we needed for our growth to continue.”
At that point, the business moved to the current facility in Sandusky. Integral to the expansion was Alex Ritter, a chemical engineering graduate of Michigan State University, who joined the company in 2011 and applied his expertise to improve the biodiesel production processes. Ritter is now vice-president of operations as well as a co-owner of Thumb BioEnergy.
Achieving quality certification
The business took another step forward in 2014, when it achieved BQ-9000 certification from the National Biodiesel Accreditation Program. This program ensures suppliers meet ASTM standards for biodiesel (ASTM D6751) and use high quality systems for biodiesel storage, sampling, testing, blending, shipping and distribution, as well as proper fuel management practices.
Also in 2014, Jackson’s daughter Jenyfer Lapish joined Thumb BioEnergy. Now, as vice president of compliance and UCO business operations, Lapish oversees oil collection services and is another co-owner of the family business along with Jackson and Ritter.
“The year I joined, we had a substantial growth in the number of restaurants coming on board to supply UCO,” says Lapish. A reliable supply of UCO is integral to the company’s success, she says.
From the beginning, Thumb BioEnergy set out to build strong relationships with its supplier restaurants, focusing on transparency and highly professional collection services. The company’s two full-time truck drivers collect UCO during normal business hours, paying restaurants for the UCO on the spot.
Each week, Thumb BioEnergy collects 15,000 gallons of UCO from 1,200 restaurants, which range from fast-food franchises to mom-and-pop diners. Much of that oil originates from soybeans grown in Michigan and other Midwest states.
After removing water, food particles and other impurities, Thumb BioEnergy processes the oil into biodiesel. It’s an efficient operation, with each gallon of purified oil yielding approximately one gallon of biodiesel. Thumb BioEnergy sells 100% biodiesel, or B100, to fuel distributors, who blend biodiesel with petroleum fuel for use in diesel engines. The final blends range from 2% (B2) to 20% (B20) biodiesel.
Benefits of biodiesel blends
Customers choosing lower B2 to B5 blends are primarily seeking fuel performance benefits, according to Ritter.
“Instead of using a fuel additive for better engine performance, a small amount of biodiesel blended with diesel fuel can achieve the same results without need to purchase a costly additive,” he says. The greater lubricity of biodiesel reduces friction to prevent engine parts from wearing out prematurely. Biodiesel also raises the cetane number of the fuel, making the engine easier to start and reducing ignition delays.
For greater environmental and carbon reduction benefits, other customers choose blends of B20 and higher. For example, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, the City of Ann Arbor’s transit system also known as The Ride, uses B20 year-round. As an industry leader that believes in practicing what they preach, Thumb BioEnergy uses B20 in its UCO collection trucks. The three co-owners use B20 to fuel their personal diesel vehicles as well.
Today, Thumb BioEnergy produces 525,000 to 575,000 gallons of B100 per year and employs seven full-time workers, in addition to the three co-owners. Production is back up after experiencing a dip during the COVID pandemic, which largely stemmed from low fuel prices and limited UCO supply due to restaurant closures. Thumb BioEnergy has capacity to produce 800,000 gallons of biodiesel annually. The company could increase its production with greater in-state demand and availability of UCO.
Supporting more in-state biodiesel use is one reason Thumb BioEnergy joined the recently launched Michigan Advanced Biofuels Coalition (MiABC). The company’s biodiesel currently goes to customers in Michigan, California and Canada. The Thumb BioEnergy team sees biodiesel growth potential waiting to be tapped in Michigan.
“I would much rather sell everything we make in Michigan, rather than shipping it elsewhere,” says Ritter. By joining with other stakeholders in the MiABC, Thumb BioEnergy will help educate citizens and policy makers about how biodiesel benefits the state through cleaner air, reduced environmental impact and job creation.
Optimism for biodiesel’s future
The Thumb BioEnergy team is enthusiastic about telling biodiesel’s story through MiABC.
“We have a great story to tell. The farmer growers the soybeans. The soybeans are crushed and the oil goes into the fryer at the restaurant. Then we pick up the used oil, turn the oil into biodiesel and sell the biodiesel back to the farmer,” says Lapish.
Despite growing attention on electric vehicles, Jackson is optimistic about the long-term outlook for biodiesel, especially in the medium and heavy-duty sector.
“Electricity use will grow in the transportation sector, but we will still need substantial amounts of liquid fuels, including diesel, for certain applications. Biodiesel has the capability to help fill that need in a way that achieves a low carbon index,” he says. “As long as the EPA’s administration of the Renewable Fuel Standard provides market signals for UCO as a biodiesel feedstock, I’m confident that community biodiesel producers can be here years into the future.”