Critics of corn ethanol say it’s wasteful at every step. But what if, instead of corn, you could make the biofuel from another American bumper crop: rotten food.
That’s the premise on which Epiphergy was founded.
“It’s the stuff that’s on the salad bar at the end of the day,” says Epiphergy founder and CEO Graham Fennie. “You name it, we get it: it could be a dented can of baked beans, it could be moldy onions, we don’t really care.”
On a recent Tuesday, one of those things was a few thousand pounds of - yep - expired canned corn.
“It just happened by unhappy accident that this is a can of corn I picked up,” Fennie says, only half joking, “but this provides a really good example: there’s corn ethanol and there’s corn ethanol.
“And if we have to make one or the other, I would much prefer to make ethanol out of this kind of corn than the other kind of corn.”
“Stuff we’re paying to throw away”
Most of Epiphergy’s raw material comes via a key partnership with Foodlink, Rochester’s regional food bank.
Epiphergy and Foodlink even share warehouse space near Rochester’s North Clinton Avenue. One half of the former Pepsi plant is pallet-upon-pallet of expired food that Foodlink can no longer offer to the region’s hungry. The other half is Epiphergy’s massive cylindrical vats, some lab equipment and a huge grinder.
The grinder is step one.
“Ordinarily you could stand right here and you really wouldn’t smell much of anything,” says Fennie, on that same recent Tuesday. “But I think we did a couple thousand pounds of onions yesterday and, boy, now you can sure smell it.”
Along with onions, the grinder chews through mushy heads of lettuce, those banged-up cans of corn and thousands of two-liter bottles of flat soda.
Before Epiphergy, all this food would be dumped into the landfill. Now it’s dumped into the grinder.
The end product is a fine slurry. Epiphergy then filters out the packaging, adds some proprietary “biology” and, in about a week, the sludge becomes ethanol. It all works because of fermentation.
“It evolved out of my background as a home brewer,” explains Fennie. “It started in my basement, moved to my barn and has now come to Foodlink.”
Epiphergy is now a six-person company that Fennie says will begin selling its fuel to a handful of upstate distributors by year’s end.
“Where the rubber meets the road”
Fennie hopes Epiphergy will ultimately help prove that “waste-to-fuel” can eat up a solid chunk of America’s ethanol market. After all, every gallon of gasoline is about 10 percent ethanol.
“Somehow, some way, everyone’s gas tank is going to have a little Epiphergy in it whether they know it or not,” says Fennie.
But the company isn’t there just yet.
So far Epiphergy has failed to win backing from venture capital or state support from agencies like NYSERDA. “We’ve been 100 percent internally financed,” says Fennie.
“It’s been a real tough road trying to convince those institutions that we’re a serious contender,” says Fennie. “And if I sound bitter about it, it’s because I’ve been banging my head against this wall for four years.”
That long road has included years of refining and testing the science - and economics - of ethanol fermentation.
But it has also included some stumbling blocks - including a failed partnership with a company that made DIY ethanol pumps.
This time around, Fennie is confident in his process. He’s convinced of his business model, and he’s convinced that Epiphergy is poised to succeed.
“Our batting average as entrepreneurs isn’t as good as you’d find in the major leagues,” Fennie says, laughing. “But it’s a process. And every business you get into that doesn’t go the way you want it to teaches you something. And sooner or later, you get it right. And I think here we’ve gotten it right.”