Former Pfizer chemist gambles on small-scale biodiesel production
Only months after officially opening Constitution Biofuels, a small-scale biodiesel facility in Groton, Conn., founder Doug Dickey said it is already receiving requests for product from several facilities. In 2008, Dickey was newly married, a first time father and after a $300 million Pfizer pharmaceutical production plant in his hometown of Groton closed, he was also out of a job. With his entire severance package, the support of his wife and a little funding from a quasi-governmental organization that encourages new business growth in the area, Dickey did what anyone in his position would have done—at least anyone with an extensive background in chemistry who has also dabbled in biodiesel production. Dickey formed Constitution Biofuels and the plant recently began producing biodiesel. Since then, he said, “People are calling all the time to use it.”
Dickey’s time spent working in the analytical control labs of the now-shuttered Pfizer plant where he tested the raw materials coming in and the finished goods going out, along with his personal practice at making biodiesel from waste vegetable oil for home heating use, combined with research that showed for Dickey the “potential to be green and make a profit” made the gamble, as he calls it, a good one. The initial idea, although altered by feedstock competition and a lack of funding, was to collect waste vegetable oil from a number of surrounding restaurants, universities and hospitals and make biodiesel. “That is the only way I thought it would be viable—if we collected the oil and cleaned it up to produce biodiesel,” Dickey said.
With his wife helping to secure feedstock contacts throughout the area, Dickey began the search for the necessary equipment to build his small plant that is now housed in a 2,400-square-foot industrial suite that also features a 400-square-foot mezzanine. “I knew the equipment I needed to look for,” Dickey said, “because we had a very expensive lab that had a lot of the equipment already.” Roughly 90 percent of the equipment used in the facility, including the mezzanine that houses his lab, was purchased on eBay. “We bought some stuff from military surplus, we bought some stuff from Pfizer, and I even got my vacuum distillation system from Pfizer for $2,000 dollars,” he said.
In all, Dickey has invested more than $300,000 in the facility and although the plant, which is currently producing about 200 gallons every other day, has had its difficulties, Dickey said if he makes a batch a day he can more than break even. The facility has already received several visits from local leaders and politicians, and several of the colleges that supply the WVO have asked to use the biodiesel for their boiler systems. “Getting laid off, getting married and having a baby within two-and-a-half years was tough,” he says, but, “at this point in my life, I’m able to try this gamble to see if it works. At least it’s in my own control, and not some large company that I’d have no say in the matter if they closed the plant.”