The Energy Balance of Snake Oil

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It’s no secret that money is flooding into the alternative energy sector, but not all of this money comes from sophisticated, investors. Unsophisticated investment is a lighting rod for the scam artists. Because there is both an urgent need to deal with the the problems posed by global warming, energy security, and resource depletion, and the new money is rapidly accelerating the advance of technology in renewable energy, new innovations are very plausible. There are many ways to lose money in alternative energy, even without being taken by a scam. The current emotional climate in the industry makes even the most solid companies’ shares gyrate wildly. Even mildly profitable, relatively unexciting picks like LED-maker CREE go on wild rides from $35 in April 06 to $15.25 at the start of February this year, only to shoot back up to over $25 today. A speculative technology startup such as Beacon Power Corp. (NASDAQ:BCON) , on the other hand, is likely to be even more volatile, having dropped almost 80% in a little over a year, and now looking as if it is headed into an upswing (as our own Charles Morand hopes.) With all the risk already inherent in investing in a booming (or is it bubbling?) emerging industry, shell companies founded just to raise money from unsophisticated investors are at least one risk we can protect ourselves against. Below are a few basic precautions. I plan to illustrate them and how they apply to U.S. Sustainable Energy Corp. (OTCBB:USSE), a company that recently announced a “revolutionary new process” for creating biofuel from soybeans, which was brought to my attention by a comment on an article I had written on Green Diesel. 1. Stick to the exchanges. With a stock market listing comes regulation and oversight. A stock market listing is not a guarantee that a company is for real, but the extra oversight of the exchange means that if you stick to companies listed on the NYSE, the NASDAQ, and the AMEX, you’re very unlikely to be buying into a scam. Even stocks which don’t trade on an exchange in the United States often trade on exchanges abroad, but not all exchanges are equal. You’re much safer with stocks on the London Stock Exchange than on London’s Alternative Investment Market. Another quick screen is to check to see if any legitimate mutual funds or ETFs own the company you are interested in (in fact, for new investors looking to create their own alternative energy portfolios, a good starting point is the holdings of the industry mutual funds and ETFs.) If you use one of these strategies, essentially trusting the regulator or the investment company (mutual fund) to weed out the scams for you, you don’t need to worry much more about scams (unless you’ve ventured onto some of the wilder and woollier exchanges.) But the cautious approach may preclude investing in a technology that you just have to have in your portfolio. In that case, all is not lost, there are several other ways to sniff out scams. You may end up rejecting a few legitimate companies, but given the risks, why take a chance? USSE: Traded on the bulletin board, with little or no oversight. Even worse, they got their stock market listing as the result of a reverse merger with a shell company, Laforza Automobiles, which means they also avoided the scrutiny that comes as part of an IPO. Recently, legitimate companies have chosen to use reverse mergers simply to avoid the headache of going public under Sarbanes -Oxley, but it is not a good sign, especially with a Bulletin Board stock. 2. Technology. It may sound obvious, but when picking an investment advisor, an investor will be better served by trying to understand how that advisor manages money,and if she/he is any good, rather than just picking the most likeable person who wants to put them in a “balanced portfolio of mutual funds.” Unfortunately, many people do exactly the opposite. This same trap lurks in assessing technology, and scammers know that the typical American has a dismal understanding of basic science. Checking the science with an expert in the field, or even a blog/bulletin board search can go a long way to protect you from hoaxes. Countless startups with sound technology have failed because of bad management, soif there is any doubt about the plausibility of a company’s technology, it’s just not worth the risk. USSE: Since their technology sounds somewhat akin to Pyrolysis followed by Fischer-Tropsch conversion, I asked Tom McKinnon, professor at the Colorado School of Mines, because I know he does research on pyrolysis chemistry. He responded:

  1. The stated feedstock is corn and/or soy which makes it sound like an oil crop process, but the rest of the text doesn’t make any reference to vegetable oils.
  2. The three products (char, pyrolysis oil, and gas) are more consistent with a pyrolysis processso why did they mention corn and soy. It would be a waste to use oil crops for pyrolysis when you can use low grade biomass as a pyrolysis feed.
  3. The pyrolysis gas is not suitable for FT synthesis without a lot of effort (at least that is my recollection, I haven’t gone back and dug into this.)
  4. The high energy content of the fuel indicates that it contains very little, if any, oxygen. Typical pyrolysis oils contain phenols and a whole witches’ brew of nasty reactive oxygenates.
  5. Pyrolysis oils are generally quite unstable and degrade fairly quickly (time scale of weeks). I don’t think anyone in their right mind would put pyrolysis oil into an expensive diesel engine, so maybe these guys have some other process.

Clearly, their technology is either revolutionary or a hoax. I also had a hunch that their claim of producing over 3x more energy in their output than biodiesel from the same feedstock seemed very high, and perhaps that there was actually more energy in their output than in their input. This would make their process another variant on a perpetual motion machine, and as such, violate the laws of physics. To do my calculations, I needed to know the BTU content of a bushel of soybeans (their stated feedstock), so I did a web search, and came across a discussion of none other than USSE. It turns out I was not the only skeptic thinking along these lines. If it’s not perpetual motion, it’s darn close. It’s also interesting to note that their “letter of validation” is from a Ph.D. wildlife ecologist and Biologist with an M.S. from a State University. I guess that all the engineers and chemists had something else to do that day, rather than tour the facilities of a company with a revolutionary new process that will help sol
ve both peak oil and global warming. 3. Management. It’s worth looking at management’s background. Often shysters wrap up one scam, only to start another. Make sure you get biographical data from sources other than the company’s website. You will want to make sure that the board of directors includes outside members with both the ability and motivation to oversee management and make sure that they do not make off with the firm’s money. USSE: Checking the company’s management and board of directors , we note that the two lists are almost identical, with the exception of an extra member of the board, David Crow, a former (according to the site) senior vice president of “Pratt and Whitney.” As the only person who has any chance of resembling an independent director, I looked him up and found him under the emeritus faculty at the University of Connecticut. He does seem to be an expert on gas turbine engineering, which would be useful for the power plant that USSE is planning, but he seems to have no experience which would help him in his duties of overseeing management. 4. Conservatism. Scammers have the incentive to boast about their company’s future, solutions to big problems draw more suckers than fixing mundane, everyday problems. They will also gravitate towards business plans that are easy for everyone to understand and that people can see in their everyday lives. Not constrained by actually needing a real product to sell, they will almost invariably come up with a product that will make most people think “Wow, that’d be great.” Conversely, you don’t have to worry too much about the company that is trying to sell its widget that will make sewage treatment plants 5% more efficient. USSE: Quote: “Our patent-pending liquid biofuel provides clean, renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of traditional biodiesel. It’s also a superior fuel: it produces more energy and doesn’t degrade engine performance, among other benefits.” I’m hardly the first person to point out that something smells in the state of Mississippi, but I hope this example will help give my readers the tools to avoid the next revolutionary new technology to teleport in. DISCLOSURE: Tom Konrad and/or his clients have positions in these stocks mentioned here: CREE, BCON. He is neither long nor short USSE (his broker does not let him short penny stocks.) DISCLAIMER: The information and trades provided here are for informational purposes only and are not a solicitation to buy or sell any of these securities. Investing involves substantial risk and you should evaluate your own risk levels before you make any investment. Past results are not an indication of future performance. Please take the time to read the full disclaimer here.


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