2010-02-25 / Local & State

Pa. Businessman Gets Biodiesel From Spare Parts


ERIE, Pa. (AP) – You won’t likely stumble across Erie’s “other’’ biodiesel plant by accident. The sign outside it says North American Powder Coatings.

Open the door, though, and you’ll find a collection of castoff pumps, repurposed propane tanks, and good-as-new electrical controls, all linked together through a complex series of pipes and hoses.

Like Tinker Toys bolted to Lincoln Logs, this is a building full of parts and pieces that weren’t designed to work together.

For 77-year-old Lee Akerly, owner of American Biodiesel Energy Inc., it’s one of the joys of life that they do.

Not that anyone knows about it.

Mention biofuels in Erie and you’ll likely be directed to the Hero BX plant at the former International Paper Co. property.

That plant, built by Erie Insurance Group heir Samuel P. “Pat’’ Black for upward of $60 million, is Pennsylvania’s largest biodiesel plant, capable of producing 45 million gallons a year.

Akerly counts himself as an admirer of Hero BX, which also happens to be his biggest customer.

But Akerly, who continues to make powder coatings, knew he didn’t have the budget to build even a downsized version of Hero BX.

So he didn’t try.

Instead, he spent about three years scouring the Internet, auctions and private sales for the equipment he would need to convert used cooking oil from restaurants into biodiesel.

Akerly likens his approach to the TLC television program “Junkyard Wars,’’ which invites seasoned scavengers to dig through junkyards to build all manner of improbable things.

Akerly, who made foam used on the Alaska pipeline, never got around to scrapping the tanks. Today, the 30-year-old tanks are part of his batch production system.

Akerly said he wasn’t about to spend $172,000 for a new distillation unit. Instead, he modified a 250-gallon propane tank to do the same job.

He used the same approach in the laboratory.

A scale so precise that it reacts to gentle breathing sells new for several thousand dollars. Akerly and company picked one up for $149.

Akerly, who has six employees, hasn’t done this all by himself. He’s worked closely with his grandson, 19-year-old Chase Akerly, who serves as the company’s chief chemist, and Ed Baran, the company’s production manager.

“Look at all this stuff,’’ he said, pointing to piles of industrial whatnot stacked on pallets along the edge of the building. “We’ve got a use for all of this.’’

The company’s approach invites comparison to the way a NASA engineer saved the occupants of Apollo 13 by building an air filter from items found in the space capsule.

“We figure out what we have to do,’’ Baran said. “And then we figure out how we can use what we have to make it do that.’’

Lee Akerly knows how improbable it all seems. Erie, after all, has witnessed the construction of a biodiesel plant built the way they’re supposed to be built.

Lee Akerly was guided not by consultants, but by hours of reading.

“I’m sure a business grad from college would come in here and say, ‘This won’t fly,’’’ he said. “They don’t know how to grovel in the dirt and pick up crumbs.’’

Lee Akerly says this with a smile of a man whose far-fetched dreams seem a little more realistic these days. A man who doesn’t mind scrounging a bit.

American Biodiesel’s Mac- Gyver-like machines seem to work just fine, and Lee Akerly has the permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and American Standard Testing Method certification to prove it.

That helped the fledgling firm win the confidence of Lake Erie Biofuels, which visited the plant a few months ago. The company, now Hero BX, has been a customer ever since, buying a good share of the 150,000 gallons Akerly’s company has produced.

“We have all the respect in the world for what they do,’’ said Mike Noble, president of Hero BX.

“They don’t have sales people,’’ he said. “If they can’t get it sold, we buy it from them to help them out. If the biodiesel industry doesn’t stick together, there is no industry.’’

Pint-size American Biodiesel took a big step forward recently, moving production from a thousand gallon reactor to a new system – made, of course, from used parts – that is capable of producing 10,000 gallons a day.

That’s enough to allow the company to sell its product through normal distributors.

Higher production capacity also enables American Biodiesel to enjoy certain economies of scale.

Used cooking oil and chicken fat, which sell for about $2 a gallon, are delivered now by the tanker truckload. And that means Chase Akerly isn’t driving around town, scooping up buckets of spent cooking oil, loaded with fragments of perch, french fries and chicken wings.

He doesn’t miss it much, he concedes.

Perhaps more importantly, just six months after making its first batch of biodiesel, the company is profitable, Lee Akerly said.

Lee Akerly, who studied chemistry and quantum physics at Gannon University, never graduated and likes to poke fun at his own shortcomings and at the company he’s built from industrial leftovers.

“We ain’t got no book learnin’,’’ he says with a smile.

What he does have is a business built on his terms.

“It’s a tremendous kick,’’ he said. “I come to work in the morning and I’m out of the car before it stops moving. We’re having a ball.’’

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