The Past and Future Meet in the Present
As biodiesel-technology pioneer BDI-BioEnergy International celebrates 25 years, Biobased Diesel™ discusses its historic accomplishments and future plans with founder Wilhelm Hammer and CEO Markus Dielacher.
From the outset, Graz, Austria-based BDI-BioEnergy International has been pioneering new process technologies to live up to its motto: “From Waste To Value.” Founded in September 1996 by Wilhelm Hammer and Helmut Gössler, the company’s first contract was in the U.S. with Griffin Industries in Butler, Kentucky, building what was then considered avant-garde: A commercial-scale biodiesel plant utilizing rendered products as feedstock.
Since its inception 25 years ago, BDI has built more than 40 largescale biodiesel facilities on four continents. The company continues to push the envelope on what is possible in the biodiesel space—and in other green technologies.
Although its 20-year anniversary in 2016 was a gala event in Vienna with customers, partners and friends from all over the world, the coronavirus pandemic has extinguished BDI’s desire for another such gathering on its silver anniversary. Nevertheless, for this company that has in many respects shaped the global biodiesel industry on a path toward greater sophistication and sustainability, Biobased Diesel™ is marking the occasion with a look back on BDI’s founding, growth, evolution, and future through exclusive Q&As with its founder, Wilhelm Hammer, and its current CEO, Markus Dielacher.
Wilhelm Hammer, Founder
Q: What inspired you to leave Vogel & Noot to found BDI, together with Helmut Gössler, back in 1996? Can you explain the conditions that led up to this?
A: Let me give you a bit of background about myself before I answer this question. My career began at the age of 21 in Paris, where I worked for an international logistics company for a few years. I then moved on to a Swiss-owned business helping them build a marketing agency from the ground up. But after 10 years in France, it was finally time to head back home to Austria where a manufacturer of irrigation systems was looking to hire a sales manager, a person who wouldn’t necessarily have the domain knowledge of the product itself, but experience of working internationally.
Back then, biodiesel felt like a rather exotic concept. In fact, it took key discussions with an old classmate of mine to prompt an introduction to Vogel & Noot. They only had a very small biodiesel business unit at that point as the business was mainly focusing on agricultural equipment. The biodiesel unit was not only very small but also very slow in gaining traction with a concept that should have been a major game-changer.
I have always been a very passionate salesperson who would travel far and wide to tell potential clients about the products I believe in. So, the challenge of turning the biodiesel division into something bigger and better was perfect for me.
It was at Vogel & Noot where I also met my later business partner Helmut Gössler. Helmut, a very gifted engineer, has an unrivaled talent for finding solutions to problems that hadn’t even existed yet—totally genius. Many years later, but still to my absolute delight, he told me how happy he was when I came on board to take the message of the biofuel concept out into the world. Helmut and I spent many years in quite a symbiotic relationship that turned out to be of great benefit not only to Vogel & Noot, but also to our own professional development.
Q: How was BDI “different” than other process-technology providers in the biodiesel space at this time, and what drove those differences?
A: While the idea of biodiesel was relatively new, I soon also realized that we were not the only ones in the market who were converting fresh vegetable oils into fuel. There was one specific project, however, that caught my attention—to fuel an engine with waste cooking oil instead of fresh oil. This idea was the brainchild of Martin Mittelbach from the University of Graz, a first-class tinkerer that I like to call the “Getafix of Biodiesel.”
Martin was on board and the idea of distinguishing ourselves from the competition by conducting profound research into the matter of intelligent waste recycling suddenly became very tangible. As with almost every idea, we had to admit very soon that economies of scale play a big part in the success of biodiesel systems. So, we needed to attract the attention of the big players in that business.
Q: Can you give me a glimpse of what the journey was like between that initial decision to launch BDI, and the company becoming a forerunner in biodiesel production technology? How did the plans unfold from a concept or idea really into a global, sophisticated company renowned for its robust plant designs?
A: There came a point where Vogel & Noot wasn’t supportive of our idea anymore due to cost implications—especially in the light of international expansion. To my own surprise, the board therefore offered me—literally during a meeting—the opportunity to take over the biodiesel business unit, and I have to say that both the price and terms were extremely fair. It felt like Vogel & Noot didn’t want to give up on the idea itself and were in fact hoping that I would continue with it. Which I did, as we all know. I did ask to sleep on it though, as the offer really did come out of the blue. However, I ended up accepting the offer within the first half-hour of leaving the meeting following brief phone calls with Helmut Gössler and Michael Koncar. I asked them whether they would partner with me, and they agreed without hesitation.
Not only did I manage to get these two biodiesel whizzes on board, but I also got the scientific back-up from Martin Mittelbach, and there were no doubts for me anymore that we would make it in the world of processing “waste to energy.” Believing in a vision is half the battle and, to this day, I haven’t deviated from my vision of preserving the environment and transforming waste into valuable resources. But to be entirely honest, without the backing of Helmut and Michael, I still wouldn’t have signed the deal.
It wasn’t the fresh oils our competition was using that paved the way to success for BDI, it was the waste cooking oils and, at a later stage, also animal fats, even those with a very high free-fatty-acid (FFA) content. Waste products always have and always will play the leading role in BDI’s mission and goals. We are outside-the-box thinkers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Everyone at BDI stands behind our goal of enabling environmentally friendly recycling with a high added value for our customers. The company as a whole can be described as “green and clean”—not just our products.
Let’s face it though, the biodiesel industry just doesn’t have friends. In the 1990s, the [petroleum] industry tried to make people believe that using fresh cooking oil for fuel is contributing to the world’s famine. Of course, they have not been mentioning that vegetable-oil producers are happy to finally have customers that would buy their surplus for a fair price.
To turn visions into reality, however, we need partners and customers that think alike. And Dennis Griffin is one of those visionaries. Why do I mention Dennis Griffin of Griffin Industries, you ask?
When we started out, there was no company in Austria that actually had a sufficient supply of waste cooking oil as there were only very small companies collecting and dealing with it. Sure, in Germany, the waste-oil industry had already grown into a sizeable market. But they had no desire to refine the collected waste themselves—or maybe they just lacked the belief that it was in fact doable.
So, I turned to the U.S., a country of endless opportunities, to find like-minded individuals—like Dennis Griffin. Already at our first get-together in Cincinnati, Dennis was on board with my idea. And as it happened, Martin Mittelbach managed to join me as well, as he attended a congress nearby.
Now, Griffin Industries had large quantities of waste cooking oil—enough to start thinking about the production of biodiesel at scale. Already a week after our first meeting, Helmut’s team and Dennis’ lead engaged into more technical conversations about BDI’s concept.
Q: When did you realize BDI had become a success, and what were the circumstances surrounding this epiphany?
A: The deal with Dennis convinced me even more that we were on the right journey. It is also a deal that is still very close to my heart, as it was the starting point of a flourishing business. It also demonstrated that true visionaries are hard to find. After all, we had to go all the way to the U.S. to find people that shared our beliefs.
Sadly though, we couldn’t get Dennis to invest in a plant that could also process rendered animal fat. He didn’t think we were quite there yet—but we were. We needed to start somewhere though and believed a journey of a thousand miles sometimes needs to begin with a single step. A few months after the successful start-up of Griffin’s plant, we had our first big success in Europe.
Biodiesel was a small industry, so everyone knew each other. Norbert Rethmann of Saria Industries in Germany approached Dennis to get a clearer picture of the efficiency and scalability of the BDI technology. We then entered negotiations with Saria, which ended up building the world’s first large industrial biodiesel plant that would turn animal fat with 20 percent FFA into on-spec biodiesel. Today, our most recent plants can handle an average of 70 percent FFA.
Q: What were some leaps, or milestones in BDI’s technological developments, that stand out in your mind as remarkable achievements for the company over the years, and why are these important to you, BDI, and biodiesel producers?
A: As mentioned previously, we created a new way of managing and using highly problematic waste material to produce prime-quality biodiesel and glycerin. In addition, our patented RepCAT technology does not only allow us to produce significantly more cost-effectively, but it also enables the reuse of the catalyst.
Our technology is state-of-art today as it was then, but today our production process is made to deal with an average of 70 percent FFA content. Surely our way of adding value to these waste products must be more efficient than just burning them, right?
Q: Why do you think BDI has been able to persevere through all the changes in the market over the past quarter century?
A: We have always been reliable partners. Our track record speaks for itself. We typically work with clients to find the right solution, but never trialing these solutions on clients by using them as guinea pigs.
Q: How would you characterize BDI’s role in the history of global biodiesel development? And your role, specifically?
A: The part I play in BDI has changed over the past few years now that I am not involved with daily operations anymore. I see myself as an “elder statesman,” and I can look at BDI through the eyes of our customers by taking a more external view. I am helping BDI develop new markets by analyzing the macroenvironment. There is still a lot of work ahead for us all.
Let’s take the climate conference in Glasgow. To not just agree on common goals but also on a common approach on how to reach those goals seems difficult, if not impossible. Of course, there are many different routes to the same destination. Let’s just hope we will all meet at that destination and don’t find ourselves scattered around different places.
One of the most important questions in that respect is, how realistic is it to actually believe that there is only one route to a healthier planet and to alternative energy sources? Do we need to allow for market- and region-specific approaches as long as they all meet the common goal?
The current development is strongly influenced by large corporations and by the oil industry. Both have their own agenda. Aren’t we running the risk that they will derail us from reaching our destination?
As long as, let’s say 5x20 or 4x25 all equal 100, we shouldn’t insist that only one technology will help us save the world. There is room for a variety of alternative energy sources. And like with all other things in life, there are pros and cons. Take wind energy. There isn’t enough wind everywhere, and equally there isn’t enough sun in every region for meaningful power generation through solar panels. Let’s look at the problem we want to solve—we all want working plugs and light switches in our homes. How the electricity needed to make them work is generated, however, can be manyfold. The same is true for the biofuels industry.
I don’t believe that monopolizing one industry or one technology only is to anyone’s benefit—especially not to the taxpayers’ benefit when the already well-established local infrastructure for biofuel production gets destroyed. We need to apply flexibility.
At the climate conference in Glasgow, the world’s leaders agreed that by 2040 we won’t have any more traditionally fueled [gasoline] and diesel cars. But let’s look at this a bit more closely. Modern diesel engines already have reduced their emissions to an almost negligible extent, which makes this decision, well, rather pointless and just supports large corporations in destroying the local infrastructure and economy.
Q: When you look back at all you and the company you started 25 years ago have accomplished, how does this make you feel?
A: I admit to be proud of myself and proud of the success BDI has had so far. 25 years ago, I made a decision that has proven to be challenging at times, but always rewarding. Surely, we faced challenges along the way, but we never faced difficulties we couldn’t overcome in time. I couldn’t have done it alone. So, I am grateful for the support I got from Helmut and Michael and many more likeminded friends and partners from the very start. I am also grateful to our customers for their loyalty and for their belief in our product and vision.
Q: What advice would you give those in the biodiesel space today who are unsure about its future?
A: We need to continue our journey to more decentralized and local waste recycling and energy provision. We need to go a step further. We need to not just show the way but call on the politicians to take action in the interest of climate change and financial affordability for everyone.
We cannot afford to rely on just a few big oil companies. Biodiesel manufacturers need to be seen as resource suppliers.
We need to act now to ensure that biodiesel systems meet all the required standards—not just meet them, but exceed them. We need to future-proof existing systems so that they can process all oils, even those that are notoriously difficult to use for biodiesel production.
The biodiesel industry also needs to engage in carbon-footprint lobbying. Only a local production lifecycle—including everything from the collection of waste to its transportation, to the biodiesel-production site itself, including its nearby consumption—can guarantee a minimal carbon footprint.
However, when we talk about hydrogen or hydrotreated vegetable oils, we need to look at this from a different angle. This business is controlled by oil companies. To be economic, the production process requires vast amounts of either electrical energy, water, fats, palm- and soy oil—resources that are generally not available in vast amounts locally.
To separate the good from the less-good boys, alternative-energy technologies should be measured on their total CO2 footprint, from feedstock to final product. That is the only way to measure how much CO2 the different technologies are really saving compared to one another.
And with that mind, we need to proactively seek collaborations within the waste and recycling industry. The world is drowning in plastic. There is a high demand for recycling and we at BDI aim to be the thought leaders in that field. With a new recycling technology, BDI will wage war against plastic waste. So, watch this space and join the team.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: Maybe it goes back to my time in Paris, but I admit that I am a bit of a foodie. And good food tastes better in the company of friends, family and business partners. Not only do I find such lunch or dinner events relaxing, they can actually lead to generating great, new ideas.
Other than that, I also like to stay active. I enjoy swimming, riding my bicycle, fishing and spending time on a yacht. While staying active helps free my mind, I do also like to just relax with my wife Karin. In fact, I call her my personal renewable-energy booster.
Q: What’s next for Wilhelm Hammer? You’ve accomplished so much in your life, is there anything you still want to do but haven’t yet?
A: That’s a question that I find hard to answer, as things can change so quickly. As mentioned previously, my mind is still buzzing with ideas that I like to bounce off my family and friends. But whatever might come my way, there is one thing that I am consciously looking after—my health. There is nothing more precious than health, as a healthy body and mind are essential for so many things in my life, your life and that of your readers. I hope we all will stay well and active for many years to come.
Markus Dielacher, CEO
Q: Could you describe for me the circumstances surrounding your introduction to BDI, and the pathway to becoming CEO?
A: More than 25 years ago, I was working together with Wilhelm Hammer and Helmut Gössler at the Austrian company Vogel & Noot. Together we built the first biodiesel plant in the Czech Republic in 1992. Later, after BDI was founded by a management buyout in 1996, I joined BDI and started to work as project and procurement manager. In 2011, after having worked in several other functions with more strategical focus within the company, I was promoted and became a member of the board as chief technical officer within BDI AG. Seven years later, in 2018, the main shareholders decided to delist the company from the stock exchange in Frankfurt. Subsequently, BDI was restructured and I got granted the chance to get in the driver seat and take over as CEO to further develop BDI.
Q: The biobased diesel market is changing rapidly with the advancement of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) projects. How is BDI adapting to these changes?
A: The entire market has been going through a time of upheaval and the limiting factor thereby is feedstock. The key question for all fat-based biofuel producers has been, how do I get the best profit out of my feedstock? This actually is the point where the feedstock makes its way either to renewable diesel, SAF or biodiesel.
For the worst-quality lipophilic substances like trap grease, brown or black grease, which are not economically usable in a hydrogenation process, BDI has been offering its RepCAT technology to biodiesel producers. On one hand, this process provides the highest yield and, on the other, it produces the lowest CO2 emissions.
For slightly better feedstock qualities, BDI is able to offer a wide range of pretreatment technologies to make this kind of feedstock usable for hydrogenation processes. Therefore, no matter where used oils and fats are going, they should somehow [encounter] BDI technology to get the highest yield and the lowest CO2 emissions.
BDI has prepared well for these changes.
Q: How will technologies that BDI pioneered years ago, such as multifeedstock and retrofit approaches, fit into the future of biodiesel? What sorts of projects can you envision demanding these offerings?
A: Taking into account that all available sources like biomass, wind, solar and hydropower will be desperately needed to minimize CO2 emissions, there is no “either/or” dichotomy in play. The question will be, which technology fits best and how will we reach our decarbonization goals? In other words, all technologies have to be used side by side and applied where they contribute most to CO2 reduction.
In my opinion, a second factor is that there are already many biodiesel plants out there in the field. Some of them are not fit for the future and retrofitting is urgently needed to get them ready to deal with the feedstock qualities they have to expect.
The future biorefinery will consist of well-equipped feedstock pretreatment providing super-clean qualities for [renewable diesel and SAF] production and the remaining qualities will be directed to a RepCAT plant or a retrofitted biodiesel plant. Depending on the customers’ needs, the final product will be sold as a blend or purely into the transport sector.
I envision that there is still a lot to do for BDI in the future. If we take the proclaimed goal to reduce CO2 emissions close to zero seriously, biofuels will have to play a significant role in the future as well.
Q: Your company has had success commercializing its RepCAT process, allowing biodiesel producers to utilize lower-cost, lower-quality feedstock, in the U.S. with Crimson Renewable Energy and now the ongoing project in Belgium with Cargill. Given the changing market conditions, could you tell me why you think this technology will be increasingly important for biodiesel producers to consider moving forward?
A: RepCAT is the most flexible way of biodiesel production worldwide, as it can deal with all kinds of fat-based feedstock. RepCAT units will be installed side by side with hydrogenation units. RepCAT units ensure cost efficiency and enable highest flexibility in feedstock procurement.
Q: BDI has expanded beyond its biodiesel roots, a move that started roughly a decade ago when the company changed its name from BDI-BioDiesel International to BDI-BioEnergy International. What prompted this change, and where has it taken you in terms of the various sectors BDI is involved in now?
A: That is right. In its beginnings, BDI was dedicated exclusively to biodiesel technology and we have been very successful with this strategy. Hence, a single-product strategy is only successful as long as the demand is stable and continuous. This fact has changed in the past due to the food-versus-fuel discussion and the financial crisis. Facing these facts, BDI had to adjust to the new market conditions and started to expand its expertise into other areas like, for example, biogas. This was an obvious step as we could immediately work with existing customers in the waste business. Once more, we could use our plant-engineering knowledge and the output was, again, green energy. So, it was not a big deal for BDI to develop from “BioDiesel” to “BioEnergy.” What we learned at that time was that BDI has enormous potential using its skills in various other chemical and biochemical fields.
Let me give you another very good example of BDI’s abilities with regard to developing, designing and building green chemical and biochemical plants. For our sister company, BDI-BioLife Science in Austria, we developed a process for microalgae and realized a production plant.
At the beginning of the 2000s, everybody in the biodiesel sector considered algae oil to be the future of biodiesel production. As a research-driven company, we started to build up our own expertise in how to grow algae. It soon turned out that producing biodiesel from algae oil was not going to be feasible in the near future. So, we changed our perspective and looked into more valuable applications for algae, ending up with producing astaxanthin from algae. Astaxanthin is considered to be the strongest natural antioxidant, which can be used as a food supplement and in the cosmetic industry. Frankly speaking, even the name BDI-BioEnergy International seems too narrow for what we are able to do.
Q: Tell me about the launch of BDI’s GreenTech Solutions, what niche does this fill and what services does it provide?
A: It is definitely BDI’s strength to develop, design and build chemical-process plants. This is what we have been doing for the past 25 years. We learned how to develop new green-chemical processes from bench to industrial scale, and we know how to manage the obstacles and risks along this path. In addition, we built up an R&D infrastructure at our headquarters with fully equipped laboratories, including state-of-the-art analytic devices and explosion-proof testing halls for piloting. Long-lasting, close cooperation with local and international research institutions guarantee that BDI always has the best experts at hand.
With our newly founded business unit GTS (GreenTech Solutions), BDI is now offering this outstanding “scale-up knowledge package” to anyone who is in need of the missing link to get from an idea at bench scale to industrial scale—and further manage the step to market.
GTS offers services along the entire value chain, from evaluation of the idea to testing, from verification to scale-up and finally construction of a plant—each step individually, or as a package. What makes us unique is that we always have a feasible industrial solution in mind, at every single stage of the upscaling process.
Q: I understand BDI is getting into the plastics recycling business. What can you tell me about this new endeavor?
A: Yes, that is true. Chemical plastic recycling is our latest endeavor. Mechanical plastic recycling is state of the art and an integral part of the circular economy, but it has its limits. Taking into account that there is a lot of plastic waste out there, which cannot be recycled mechanically, other technical solutions are necessary. Chemical recycling is needed as an alternative to keep the carbon chains in the loop and not lose them by incineration. BDI has teamed up with an Austrian company to create “SynCycle.” Here we are developing a new process for chemical recycling of polyolefins. In parallel, we have already been developing projects based on this new technology with customers in Europe.
Q: Why will biodiesel remain an important fuel, and why will innovative biodiesel process technologies continue to be needed, as we move into an age of large renewable diesel and SAF projects, and electrification?
A: Firstly, to get past the fossil-fuels era it will be necessary to use all sources of renewable energy like biomass, solar, wind and water. Hereby, biomass will play an important role as a quickly available, renewable source of energy. Secondly, we need to handle our renewable resources carefully and make sure that we use them in the best possible, most efficient way. Thirdly, low-quality oils and fats will continue to go into biodiesel production because it is the best solution from an economic and ecologic point of view, considering its superior greenhouse-gas savings.
Q: What region(s) of the world do you think biodiesel project development holds the most promise, and why is this?
A: The U.S. and Europe are currently producing the highest quantities of biodiesel derived from waste oils and fats. In Asia and South America, virgin oils are still dominating the biodiesel scene. Africa has more or less no biodiesel production. Having said that, there is plenty of room for retrofits and new plants in these areas.
Q: Are there industrial segments in society still largely untapped that you believe could benefit from waste retrieval and co-located biodiesel production? If so, what are they and what makes them hold potential in your opinion?
A: Wastewater has its opportunities as a source for scarce elements like phosphorus. With our GTS team BDI has supported a German operator of wastewater plants to scale up a newly developed technology to recycle phosphorus from sewage sludge incineration plants. Oils and fats from wastewater plants are mainly treated in adjacent biogas units and turned into electricity to make these plants self-sufficient.
It is a positive side effect of GTS that we get in touch with companies that are surveying alternative areas and by cooperating with them, BDI helps to bring new ideas to the market.
Q: What is next in terms of biobased diesel process-technology developments for BDI?
A: The next move will be towards lignocellulosic biomass like forestry and agricultural waste. BDI has already developed a new biomass-to-liquid-process—the so-called “bioCRACK” process—up to pilot scale and we are well prepared to go to demo-scale together with a partner from the petroleum industry. The bioCRACK process has been designed as a refinery-integrated add-on process. Thereby, the core process step of bioCRACK is a liquid-phase flash-pyrolysis, which leads to high-quality diesel with a share of up to 20 percent bio content.
Q: Looking ahead to the next 25 years for BDI, what do you see?
A: According to its vision, BDI will become a provider of several green-chemical and biochemical technologies in the field of circular economy. Our team of highly experienced engineers strives to deliver proven state-of-the-art technology and supports customers starting from the first idea to the turnkey industrial plant. In other words, BDI will evolve further from a single to a multi-technology provider and, at the same time, will use its engineering skills as a technology enabler.
Moreover, the activities and interactions between technology provider and plant owner/operator will further merge due to service tools like continuous optimization, predictive/preventative maintenance and virtual troubleshooting—subsumed under “Smart Operations.”
Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biobased Diesel™