WisBusiness: Milwaukee company ‘senses’ future of biofuels

By Kerry B. Ferguson

MILWAUKEE – Paradigm Sensors believes it has a timesaving edge in the booming alternative fuel industry.

The company has created a hand-held monitor to insure that biodiesel engines operate at an optimal level. That means means Paradigm could lower the market barriers of using biodiesel by putting accurate tests directly in the hands of consumers.

Paradigm’s monitor, called the i-Spec™ Q-100 Handheld Biodiesel Analyzer, is an impedance spectrometer that tests the biodiesel condition and blend-percentage, which tells the driver how efficient his or her engine is working.

This hand-held version is a far cry from the established method of testing biodiesel, which means periodically taking samples from the tank and laboriously sending them to labs for testing.

Paradigm’s new method of testing the biodiesel will take only minutes instead of days, and could help to change the attractiveness of using biodiesel instead of gasoline diesel. With few biodiesel stations open and a risk of varying performance levels in the engine, the i-Spec™ Q-100 could make biodiesel use more attractive to consumers.

In the United States, Paradigm Sensors targets two main markets: government vehicles (municipal diesel-run fleets) and rail, marine, farming and construction markets, which together make up 95 percent of potential clients for the company.

About 75 percent of the United States is currently covered by mandates, tax credits and usage incentives for using biofuels. Plus, Paradigm executives believe the market in Europe is 10 times as large than its American counterpart.

Even in the United States, biofuel production has increased more than 150 percent in the last six years, with projections shooting up another 10 percent in 2008 to 750 million gallons produced. With all that biodiesel used, a hand-held monitor will come in… well, handy.

In addition to Paradigm’s hand-held impedance spectrometer, the company is working on expanded versions that would be in-situ (miniaturized in-line) that would analyze the critical fluid condition automatically.

This will allow biodiesel producers and users to reduce current operational challenges from fuel quality issues that can be a huge deterrent to many drivers. The i-Spec™ will help to prevent engine shutdown from excessively high glycerin, engine corrosion from oxidation leading to high acidity in the fuel and unscheduled maintenance visits.

With fewer reasons to stick with gas diesel, Paradigm officials hope the attractive nature of a green fuel solution will lure more drivers in the next year as their product launches.

With the United States economy straining to perform at past levels, global climate change and increased competition for crude oil, there is a distinct call for alternative fuel sources.

Scientists have known for many years that internal combustion engines can run without petroleum-based fossil fuels, especially diesel engines that require little to no modifications to run biodiesel. Cars and semi trucks with such an engine can safely use modified French fry oil from the neighborhood fast-food restaurant instead of diesel fuel.

Corn-base ethanol can also be used in diesel engines. The impedance spectrometer (IS) uses infrared light to create a current flow that is measured to show composition and functionality. By using electricity instead of previously used optical measurements, Paradigm can use simple, inexpensive electrodes to get the same results at a fraction of the cost – savings it passes on to the pocketbooks of consumers.

Plus, it really does fit in your palm, weighing under a kilogram (2.2 pounds) with only six buttons, four of which are directional arrows.

Paradigm, who is currently seeking $1 million in investment dollars, continues to further its research on biofuel efficiency for its sensors.

Its main goal is to help alleviate the economical, environmental and political concerns that surround the petroleum business worldwide. With a simple hand-held device to monitor fuel quality, the greatest challenge a consumer would meet would be sniffing out the nearest biodiesel station.

Ferguson is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.