Waste not, want not

Euan O'Brien, Process Chemist at Argent Energy in the UK, tells us about his part in creating clean, green fuels out of degraded waste fats and oils.

Euan O'Brien

Can you describe your role? What is special about working for Argent Energy?

I'm based in the lab at our plant in Motherwell, in Scotland, and I work on our processes to turn feedstocks into fuels. My job involves running tests, analysing problems, resolving issues and refining processes, and I also work with my colleagues in R&D to explore new product lines.

We make bio-fuel from waste materials – namely waste fats and oils. Where we're unique in the market is that we don't use feedstocks that can be used in food production – things like rapeseed, soya and palm oil. Instead, we use raw materials like tallow, an animal waste product, and degraded waste such as fats, oils and greases – known as FOGs – from the waste-water industry.

I think this approach makes us more environmentally-friendly. With something like FOGs, if they're not being converted into fuel they're just going into the sewers. Ultimately, we want to help the world move away from fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, so we're always looking to find sustainable, renewable alternatives, and this kind of waste is always renewable.

How has your career taken shape and what qualities are required for the job?

I joined Argent three years ago after studying chemistry, first at the University of Glasgow, then at the University of York, where I did a masters in green chemistry. That involved researching how to make bio-based polymers – so, essentially, replacing plastics that are made from mineral oil. I knew then that I wanted to work in this sector; green chemistry was quite a new field, but it's gaining traction as climate change looms larger.

I am a passionate environmentalist and I think it helps in this job if you want to make a difference and do some good. You should also be good at collaboration, have an inquisitive mind and be patient, because results often aren't instant. Equally, you need to have the conviction to push through when the work is hard.

What are some of the more unusual feedstocks you've worked with?

Well, anything that has a fat or an oil content, basically we can use it; but some things we handle can be quite off-putting! Once, we received a watering can containing effluent from a dairy farm, and on another occasion we were given a bag that was left over from the rendering process. It still had metal hooks in it from the abattoir. I'll also never forget the icecream box full of tallow that had turned blue. Sometimes the raw material we take from dairy farms has been lying around for months and it can be quite intimidating in terms of the smell. But, actually, these materials are good because things like milk and cheese are full of fat and that's what we need.

Can you describe the testing process, and also what happens next?

What we do in the lab is try to mimic as closely as we can what happens on the plant, so that we can determine how well a sample is going to go through the biodiesel process. Based on our lab results, the process can be tweaked and fine-tuned for each specific feedstock. The results are then passed on to our operations and commercial teams, and they will assess the viability of the product based on potential yields, quality parameters, any additional services required such as having to heat the product when off-loading it from containers - and, of course, price. The feedstock also has to be something that can be acquired in sufficient volumes.
Argent Energy's plant in Motherwell supplies biodiesel to Scotland and the north of England.
Argent Energy's plant in Motherwell supplies biodiesel to Scotland and the north of England.
All kinds of waste materials are analysed by Argent to determine their suitability as biodiesel feedstock.
All kinds of waste materials are analysed by Argent to determine their suitability as biodiesel feedstock.

What aspects of the job do you find most rewarding?

As a chemist, it's often things that might seem small to other people that can have a big impact. For example, I've done a lot of work with additives, which can lengthen the shelf-life of a product or improve the properties of how it reacts. That work has led to money saved for the business, which is always welcome. Another recent example was being able to identify that we needed to increase the concentration of a catalyst on the plant to make things run more efficiently.

Overall, my role is never repetitive and I can see how the work I do impacts on Argent's ability to maintain production levels and generate business profits. The drive to discover and develop new feedstocks is a key objective for the company and I am proud to be involved in research and analysis that supports this strand of our overall strategy.

Is there a special satisfaction in the way Argent contributes to reducing carbon emissions?

Absolutely. I love working for a company where the ethos is based around sustainability. For every million litres of our biofuel used, more than 4,000 tonnes of emission was saved, equivalent to removing 2,000 cars from UK roads. That's an amazing impact. I would also say that Swire's continued support and investment in our efforts to reduce carbon footprints shows that we're all on the same page. It really feels like we are working towards common goals across the Swire group.
Contributing value to China

Contributing value to China

Waste not, want not

Waste not, want not

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