Founder & CEO of Alpha Biofuels, Allan Lim.

Before circular economy and urban rooftop farming became hot topics, Allan Lim had tied his fortunes to the concept of sustainable energy. A civil engineer, Lim explored the potential of transforming waste into fuel with like-minded university friends in 2007.

Inspired by the book Power to the People and its talk about democratising renewable energy, the group began experimenting with used cooking oil in their kitchens. They ruined pots and pans and flummoxed their wives but enough hope emerged for them to quit their jobs and pursue the project in a proper lab.

“There, we used buckets and made 20 litres of biofuel,” Lim reminisces. “No one believed in us. I got my army mate to come with his truck by promising him free fuel. We loaded it into the vehicle and it worked!” Lim calls this story the “genesis” of Alpha Biofuels. He didn’t know then that 15 years would pass before the company became viable. Or that the catalyst for its success would come during one of Singapore’s most trying times.

Says Lim: “We were surprised during the Covid years. Times were tough, but there was a fundamental shift in the way big companies regarded sustainability, probably due to COP26. There was a structure they had to follow in terms of financial and corporate reporting. That created a lot of demand for us.”

The company provides biofuel for DBS’ first net zero building, replacing the diesel in its backup generators. “They have enough confidence that we will not fail them in an emergency. We are their last line of defence and we’re bio,” says Lim.

Related: ComCrop, Singapore’s first commercial rooftop farm, feeds the nation

Fueling possibilities from used cooking oil from food and beverage businesses

Two years ago, in an unprecedented trial, Alpha Biofuels powered bulk tanker Frontier Jacaranda’s sail from Singapore to South Africa. The fuel, a blend of 7 percent biofuel and 93 percent regular, reduced the tanker’s CO2 emissions by 5 percent.

Says Lim, “We all have to look at how to lower carbon emissions, not just in manufacturing. The lightbulb moment happened for us in 2007. After trudging along for 14 years, it’s like ‘I told you so’ — we were right. It’s a powerful moment when we see our fuel going into a 300m vessel. Then, Formula 1. We’ve been collecting used cooking oil from them for more than 10 years but they were reluctant to use our fuel until last year, when it was used to power a food and beverage area. More corporates are willing to commit now.”

Alpha Biofuels works by collecting used cooking oil from food and beverage businesses, food manufacturers, and households. This is blended with diesel in different ratios. Currently, the company’s product, B20, 20 percent of which is biofuel, is the same price as retail diesel. Its B100, or pure clean energy, is about 30 percent more expensive. “People are not used to buying low carbon products, so a lot of the customers are taking small steps. We are seeing a steady increase in production, adoption, and purchase. In the past, we would sell B10, now, we are turning to B20, B30, B40, B50 so the content of renewable energy in the fuel is getting higher. That’s a good thing.”

According to Lim, production increased 50 percent from pre-to post-covid, going from low hundreds of thousands of litres to about several hundreds of thousands in the past two years. The quest now is to increase efficiency. And no, there is no synergy between Alpha Biofuels and Comcrop, the urban rooftop farm Lim founded in 2013.

“We have been innovating at Alpha Biofuels. There are two parts to what we do. One part is to develop technologies and systems to allow recycling to happen quickly and traceably,” says Lim. Rather than inventing infrastructure, he is looking to piggyback on delivery personnel and the empty space on their truck on the return trip.

“We should be able to bring oil in to recycle. By making use of reverse logistics, we cut down on carbon emissions because the driver does not have to go around collecting the product.” And if they happen to be diesel delivery staff, even better, as these individuals will be helping both themselves and their customers transition to the new economy.

“The other part of the company feeds used cooking oil through a really cool chemical process to produce biodiesel,” says Lim. “Fresh oil is used, the used oil becomes waste, the waste gets collected, and becomes energy again. We then use it for the truck that delivers the food. Very little waste is created in the process. We have one of the most advanced circular economy platforms in the region.”

From eating prata to an $11 baguette

The company is currently profitable, but whatever success he’s enjoying now, Lim knows that a business trajectory is unlikely to be a straight line upwards. He remembers the darkest days of his career, when he wondered why he was collecting 20 litres of oil for nothing, then along came an order for 200 tonnes from a global MNC.

“I started this journey eating prata, now I am eating an $11 baguette,” Lim says. He credits his mentors for giving him the “iron” in his back when he wanted to give up. “It has been a very enlightening journey. In the early days of startups, there wasn’t really much support. Some people made it, some didn’t, but everyone kind of helped each other. I had good mentors who have made it, who grew the company to multi-million dollar corporates and hundreds of staff. But they bring you along. They give you good advice, and they don’t give up on you. That’s very important.” .