A catalyzer for change

A catalyzer for change

November 27, 2009 00:49
3 minute read.

Many people today know that science can make biofuel from organic waste. But what a large percentage of people don't realize is that the biofuel process actually creates pollution and waste. Looking to minimize the damage and set an example for his community is Dr. Sobhi Basheer, founder of TransBioDiesel based in Shfaram. Basheer has developed a catalyst-based solution that helps create usable fuel from organic materials, while reducing the toxic wastewater produced in the process. The biocatalysts he develops are environmentally benign, he says, and can lower the total production costs of biodiesel fuels. Already the company's biological enzyme technology has been installed at a pilot site where it is breaking biomass down to usable fuel and helping produce some 500 liters (132 gallons) of biofuel every day. A second site is now being built and this will produce a few hundred gallons (about 2,000 liters) a day of cleaner biofuel. Basheer, a married father of three, lives in Sakhnin, in the North. He first began working with enzymes while he was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees in chemistry from 1982 to 1986. "I have been involved in the development of new processes for using industrial enzymes for more than 20 years," admits Basheer. After working and studying in Zurich (where he received his D.Sc. in Biotechnology from the Technical Institute of Switzerland), his post-doctoral post led him to the National Food Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan, followed by a two-year post-doctoral term at the Faculty of Food Engineering and Biotechnology at the Technion Institute in Haifa. HE LEFT the faculty in 1996 and founded his own startup, Enzymotic, a company that produces industrial enzymes for the biotech industry. He also founded another company, Zeituna, a company that developed an enzymatic process for the solidification of olive oil in the food industry. At the same time, with the help of Shulamit Aloni, Minister of Arts and Science in the late 1990s, Basheer helped establish a science R&D center in the Arab sector called the Galilee Society. Basheer founded Nablus-based TransBioDiesel in 2007 with a $1.5 million investment from venture capital company, Aquagrow, and with a grant from the Office of the Chief Scientist. The goal of the seven-employee company is to use a natural bacteria-based enzyme instead of chemical catalysts to reduce energy inputs and wastewater. "It's a green tool and cost-effective, meaning it is not a lot more expensive to go green," Basheer says. "This is a trend worldwide. So I decided to employ my expertise in this field to replace conventional processes." CONVENTIONAL BIODIESEL is made during a transesterification process - a reaction between triglycerides and alcohols, usually methanol. The process is catalyzed by sodium or potassium hydroxide. It requires a big consumption of energy, with high temperature inputs, and the production of large amounts of alkaline wastewater results. The problem is everywhere, Basheer explains. "We are looking for renewable sources of energy. Since the technology area that I am involved in was already using enzymes, I thought of how to apply this existing chemical technology to the production of biodiesel - something that is polluting the environment." TransBioDiesel is proving to be a hot commodity. Large companies from the US and Canada are already talking with Basheer about strategic development, and in 2008, the US-Israel binational BIRD fund issued him a grant to partner with a US firm. TransBioDiesel is now ready to commercialize its natural-based enzymes. Basheer's work goes beyond the bounds of cleaning up the environment. He also addresses social and political problems in Israel and the Middle East. As one of the few Arab clean tech scientists in Israel - a country leading the market with about 10 other countries - he's also helped forge ties between Israel and universities in countries like Egypt and Jordan. While rare, he is not the only Israeli-Arab in the clean tech market. But his influence could certainly catalyze a whole lot of change in the petroleum-dependent Middle East. Israel21c.org

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