Newsletter Stories

A Rabbit's Journey - Life of a Diesel Engine (March 2021)

It was the fall of 1981, and a shiny new Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup Truck was rolling off the assembly line at the Westmoreland VW plant, located a short drive from Pittsburgh. The Rabbit’s diesel hummed contentedly to itself, musing on the joy and happiness that it would bring to someone down the line.

First, get to the dealership, next, find a family, then time to get all 52 of her mighty horsepower to work! And work she did. After nearly forty years and 208,000 miles on her little diesel powerplant, the Rabbit felt that she had lived a fine life, hauling loads around Western Pennsylvania, enduring salty winters, sweltering summers, and springs that can produce enough rain to break the banks of the many regional rivers, the Rabbit thought that her life had entered an end stage. She looked back on all that she had done, and she was proud of the work. So many of her brothers and sisters that she knew from her first days were gone. Still, she kept the proud VW diesel tradition going. It was a good life. Little did she know, her life had only just reached a middle.
Not far from where the Rabbit was born, a young man by the name of Kevin Smyth worked for a company which focused on biodiesel technology. The Rabbit had never heard of Optimus Technologies, and biodiesel was something that the young kids were into. She wasn’t sure if it was something that would work for her. But Kevin, sensing that his motorcycle days were coming to a close, wanted to find a way to bring his passion for biodiesel into use in his everyday life. After a little searching, and a short bartering session, Kevin struck a deal with the Rabbit’s caretaker.

Though the Rabbit bore the scars and strains of a life in the rust belt, Kevin fell in love at first sight. He knew that the process might take some time, but he also knew that he could give the girl a second life of sustainability and pride that she hadn’t known was possible. New floor pans were a given. Some new wiring too. Perhaps some additional support and structure. As Kevin took the time to shore up some of her areas of need, he whispered to the Rabbit about a magical possibility of a new turbodiesel. Two hundred horsepower? Who had ever heard of such strength? Soon she was rolling down the street, a daily driver once again, and she rested in view of a sign bearing a gear logo along with the words; Optimus Technologies.

Inside that building, Kevin focuses his energies on making tech that reduces carbon emissions, and allows any diesel engine to run on fuels made from refined vegetable oils. And beef fat! The Rabbit had never dreamed that such a thing was possible. Forty years ago, when she was shiny and new, nobody else believed it either. Inside that brick building, however, men and women work diligently to make that which was once thought impossible available to trucks and tractors and fleets everywhere. The Rabbit looked at her new home, and pride swelled. She was going to be part of this! Oh, she might get some new parts, and some of her old seals and hoses and gaskets might get changed out, but she was used to such things. She was, after all, a forty-year-old piece of machinery. Maintenance was her birthright; it was her due. But she will still bear the weathered skin of someone who has lived a life of purpose, a life of service. As Kevin settles into the driver’s seat, he pats the cracking vinyl of the Rabbit’s headliner, and he thinks to himself, ‘Don’t worry old girl. I’m going to take care of you, and you will take care of me. And before we’re done, we are going to see another 200,000 miles together. We’re also going to help the world breathe a little easier, which is no small thing. Just you wait.’ Kevin turns the key, the Rabbit’s engine explodes into life, and as she sips her biodiesel, she knows that the miles which she has seen are only the prologue to this unimagined life in front of her. As Kevin and the Rabbit roll down the road, the future waits. It’s going to be an adventure!

Trouble in the Valley - An Earth Day Adventure (April 2021)

Penny ran down the mountain, looking for the source of commotion. Rumors and grumblings had spread like wildfire through the village that morning. Something was going on in the grassy field. What it was, no one was sure. But there was noise and shouts filling the air, and Penny wanted to know if she needed to worry, if everyone back at the camp was safe. Penny and her family had just moved north from Utah, and she for one did not want to move again. Not again. Not yet anyway.

On the edge of the clearing, Penny could see others furtively scanning the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of what was coming. “What news from the Valley?” Penny asked.

“A rumble in the distance. Sounds like trucks. And workers. Coming this way” replied one of the other onlookers. Trucks meant trouble. Trucks meant change. Most of all, trucks meant that the air was going to get rough. Penny could avoid people. But the air, that’s everywhere. And the heat, the heat just doesn’t stop! But Penny wanted to see with her own eyes. She didn’t want to bring her family bad news if she didn’t have to. They had been through enough of that over the last few years, and if Penny could spare them even a bit of worry, she would. With determination and trepidation, she continued to the edge of the valley.

Penny heard the sound that they were talking about long before she saw anything. The rumble. That unmistakable sound of diesel engines laboring up a hill. Her heart sank at the thought of what those trucks might bring to the valley. As her eyes scanned the horizon, her eyes grew wide. She saw trees swaying in the distance, and they were getting closer! As the sound began to fill her ears, she realized what was going on. And a smile pulled at the sides of Penny’s mouth.

Up, out of the valley climbed 5 trucks, each laden with trees ready for planting. Beside the trucks, a throng of people, young and old, trooped along, carrying shovels, pickaxes, and all manner of digging tool to aid in the planting of the trees. One of the small people pointed straight at Penny and yelled, “Mom! Look, it’s a pika!”

“Why, so it is!” considered the bigger person. “You don’t need to worry about us, little pika. We’re here to do our part to make it a little cooler for you, to make it a little easier to breath. The trees that we plant today will grow tall and strong, give you plenty of shade, and maybe most importantly, they are going to pull loads of the carbon out of the air. But it’s going to take a while until these beauties are fully grown. Look right over there, and you can see what we are doing right now to help out even more than these trees will do.”

Penny looked to where the big person was pointing. At first Penny was confused. The lady was pointing at the trucks. Wait, no, the big one wasn’t pointing at the truck. She was pointing at the letters on the side of the truck. Runs on 100% Biodiesel! Penny’s eyes got big. She darted to the next truck, and the next truck, and the next! Every truck bore the words pronouncing that these trucks ran on 100% biodiesel! Penny scampered back to the Big and Little humans standing at the edge of the clearing. They could see that the pika was excited, hopeful, happy even.

The big one laughed, joy crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Aren’t you a smart one” she said. “I can tell that you understand. Those 5 trucks will offset more carbon than 20 acres of this forest. And they will do it year after year, for as long as they keep running. No one is saying that we don’t need trees! We’re here planting more of them, after all. But trees alone aren’t going to get the job done. We need to do everything that we can to reduce carbon emissions now. And big diesel trucks running on B100, well that’s a big step in the right direction there. Now, why don’t you run back to your family, little pika, and let them know that it’s going to be ok. We have to get to work planting these trees!”

Penny did just that. She scurried back up the mountainside, back to the camp where her family waited for news. As she ran, Penny thought about the other words that she saw on the big trucks. Optimus Technologies. Optimus. Well, for the first time in a long time, Penny felt something like that. A feeling long forgotten, but now bursting forth in leaps and jumps. Optimistic. That’s the word. Optimistic.

The Closed Circle - A Personal Perspective (May 2021)

It’s the dream of economists, of environmentalists, of activists the world over. The Circular Economy is, to many, the goal of what responsible business and industry should be. And yet, for others, we have no idea what that is, or what it looks like in the first place. So, before we talk about how we can make it work, let’s all get a better idea of what it even is, shall we? Put simply, it’s when a product is reused or repurposed in a new way. If that sounds like recycling, well that’s a big part of it. However, it’s not just about Reduce Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose. In a lot of ways, it’s about Rethink. When looking at waste, don’t think about it as garbage, think of it as potential. What could this become? And if you really want to close the circle, the waste from one activity is reused to make a product that facilitates the original activity. For example, a delivery truck brings cooking oil to a restaurant. The restaurant uses the oil to fry their food, and when they are done with it, they place it in a bin to be collected and recycled into biodiesel. That biodiesel can then be used to directly fuel both the delivery truck, as well as the oil collection vehicle. The grease that for so long was just viewed as garbage, destined for the landfill, instead has new life as a fuel that drives the hardest working trucks on the road. Trucks that come right back again next week, delivering more supplies and collecting more cooking oil. Round and round the circle goes, and the waste that was once thrown away creates new value as a new product. Let’s look at another example. A combine harvests soybeans. Those same beans are crushed, making it easier to process the rich protein found in the beans, and also releasing the soybean oil trapped inside. While the protein goes off to become food, some of the oil gets processed into biodiesel. That same biodiesel can then be used by the combine to fuel further harvesting activities, as well as fueling the trucks that transport the soy meal to its final destination. A closed circle. Thinking about a world with no waste, sometimes that’s too big, too impossible to conceive. Even the people that invented the concept of the circular economy recognize that it’s a pie-in-the-sky dream. So many things that we interact with each day are single-use items, because, let’s face it, they’re convenient. But a world with a little less waste, I think that we can all get behind that. So, I invite you to think about one place, just one, where you can make less waste, and do it. I can also find one place, and the next person can find one place, and then we can share the ways that we’ve reduced waste with our friends, our neighbors, our fellow church congregants. And maybe, if each person can find just one place to make less waste, we just might be able to reduce the gap so that our children can someday close the circle.

You Come to a Fork in the Road. Which Direction do you Choose? (September 2021)

Every ton of CO2 emissions adds to global warming. Climate scientists have been saying it for years, some for decades, but never in my recollection has the situation been so thoroughly and clearly stated as the recent IPCC report that came out in August. Complete with graphs, data, and citations that highlight the urgency of the situation, the IPCC AR6 report lays bare the fact that the climate is changing, we, humans, have done this, and that the main culprit is our continual and cumulative contribution of carbon into the atmosphere.

When we were all young, we learned about photosynthesis, about how plants gobble up the CO2 that we send into the air, taking the carbon for themselves, and giving us back the clean, pure oxygen that we need to breathe. And they absolutely do that, but not nearly at the pace that we have been making CO2. Plants sequester as much carbon as they can, but the rest accumulates in the atmosphere, and in the ocean, making the oceans more acidic and turning the atmosphere into an oven. And it doesn’t go away, just because we don’t see the invisible gases hanging in the air around us. The carbon will stay there until it eventually gets sequestered into biomass or some other carbon-capture apparatus. The balance sheet doesn’t reset at the end of the year.

So, in this report that feels like doom and gloom, that states unequivocally that if we continue down the path we are on and don’t make drastic changes that the global temperature will be a full 8’ C higher be the end of the century, where are the rays of light piercing the dense carbon-filled fog?

The first ray that I see is understanding and acknowledging that we have done this, and more importantly, the consequences if we don’t take action. The IPCC lays out five scenarios, based on when and to what degree we change our current behaviors. If we act quickly and significantly, we can turn around the most drastic impact by mid-century. If we are slow, or don’t cut carbon significantly enough, or worst of all, keep going on as we have, then we may never be able to turn back the catastrophic climate change that we are already seeing. Many states are only now just creating their climate mitigation plans, and for the ones that already have plans in place, the timeline that they’ve laid out has them achieving their goals by 2040 or 2050. As wonderful as it is to have a plan, if we wait until 2050 to hit our reduction targets, we are still exceeding the amount of carbon that the atmosphere can disperse, and therefore continuing to add to the problem. Knowing these timelines gives us an opportunity to craft a response.

The second and brighter ray of light is knowing that carbon is the culprit, and reducing carbon is the immediate answer. How do we do that, when we have become so reliant on fossil fuels for electricity, for transportation, for heat? It’s a tough question, but there are solutions, even for things so difficult to address as refuse trucks, transit buses, school buses and snowplows. Electric solutions may be coming in the heavy-duty sector, but if they are, they are a long way off, and they still won’t have the ability to run non-stop for twenty hours a day for weeks on end, like snowplows, long-haul trucks, and emergency vehicles often need to do. What we have available at this very moment are biofuels and the Optimus Vector System. With the Vector System, you can operate your vehicles on 100% biodiesel, reducing Scope 1 emissions by up to 100%, and you can do that today. 93% of the large trucks on the road use diesel engines as their power source, and those same trucks contribute a full 25% of transportation greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

There are thoughts and wacky notions of things that can be done to cool the earth. If we could schedule and artificially induce volcanos to fill the sky with ash, it would in fact cool the earth, but the carbon overloading would still be there, and the sky would be filled with volcanic ash, which just sounds terrible. The simplest solution is also the easiest solution. Reduce our carbon footprint, as aggressively and quickly as possible. Solutions give us options, and options imbue us with the freedom to choose. The choices that we make will determine the world we leave to our children and grandchildren. We can leave them with a lush garden, teaming with life, or we can leave them with a world on fire, struggling to breathe.

The IPCC report is not a story of doom, but a story of possibility. In this choose-your-own-adventure tale that is our lives, the path forward is clear. Cut carbon and choose life. Wait for someone else to do it for you, and the path becomes more perilous. Optimus presents the pathway to reduce your Scope One carbon by 100%, starting tomorrow. Twenty years ago would have been a great time to reduce our carbon, but tomorrow is not too late. Tomorrow is the perfect time to see hope piercing through the gloom.

The Season of Sustainability (October 2021)

Mist creeps down the river. The moon casts its arms and fingers, undulating across the fog, reaching, grabbing, snatching, failing to lay hold of the pestilent vapor. A horn cries out in the distance, warning travelers to be wary of hidden things lurking around corners. In the fog, a sickly yellow light struggles to cut through the dense miasma. Clang, clang, clang. The rhythmic sound of water against the shore is broken. Clang, clang, clang. Something massive is coming, getting closer by the moment. Clang, clang, clang! Bursting through the mist, the enormous form of a barge cuts its way down stream. Moonlight bathes the sides of the huge vessel while tendrils of fog greedily grope the sides of the steel behemoth. In the distance, a familiar chugging sound announces the presence of a mighty diesel tug, driving the barge toward the waiting harbor.

Frank squints his eyes, trying to see the name on the side of the boat. He braces his legs against the sides of his kayak, preparing for the wake of the large vessel. It may not be a morning fit for man nor beast, but the fish don’t seem to mind, and so neither does Frank. A bright beam glints off the hull revealing the name. Midnight Strider. Odd name for a boat, but boats have odd names. Frank named his own humble craft the Mary Shelly. A slight tug at the line breaks Frank from his reverie. He braces for the struggle to come, but after that initial tug, all the tension in the line goes slack. Just a nibble then. Frank allows his attention to return to the barge and the tug just now coming into full view.

Midnight Strider isn’t big. None of these harbor boats are big, when you put them side-by -side with the barges, but they sure are powerful! Frank shakes his head, thinking how something that small can move so much weight. Physics, he supposes. And a good strong diesel engine. Frank sees one of the crew standing on the deck of the tug, and he decides to give a good greeting from the river.

“AHOY!” he calls out.

“AHHHHHHH! Who’s out there?” comes the startled reply.

“Down here! Look down!” Frank sends back.

The person on the crew lowers their gaze. They take in the sight of the small craft, bobbing in the water, and the man bundled in multiple layers of flannel with his fishing line trailing behind him. With the puffer jacket drawn tight over Frank’s many layers, he resembles the Michelin Man. “What are you doing out here, this time of day?” the person inquires. “If you’re not careful, we could have gone right over you, and nobody would have even noticed!”

“I know these waters pretty well. Been fishing them as long as I can remember. I got me this little nook right over here, too shallow for you big boys. And I like this time of day. It’s quiet, except for the harbor bell, and the fish like to jump right into my boat.” Frank considers the boat once more and says: “That’s a fine boat you’ve got there. I heard the thrum of your diesel engine before I even saw you cutting through this pea soup. Mighty fine, those diesel engines. Not great for the rivers, mind you, but good, strong boats.”

“Oh ho! Seems like you don’t know everything about this boat, old timer!” The you crewman joyfully calls back. “This here boat runs on 100% biodiesel. Great for the air, great for the river, and great for everyone that works on the crew. I tell you truly, I love the smell of biodiesel in the exhaust. Smells like butter popcorn!”

Frank is taken aback. “100% biodiesel? The hell you say! They don’t work when it gets this cold out! You’re pulling an old man’s arthritic leg! What’s your name, anyway?”

“It’s Bram, and I’m not pulling your leg! A month or so back, some guys from Pittsburgh came in and installed this cool new fuel system. They bolted the thing right on, uses the same engine and everything. We go through more diesel in a day on this thing than most trucks go through in a month. So, not only did we get the boat right back in the water in no time at all, those Yinzers turned this girl into a floating carbon killer! Bye, old timer! Time and tide wait for no man, as they say! Good luck with the fish!”

With that, the Midnight Strider slips out of sight, swallowed by the fog, distinct sound of the diesel engines still plugging away. With a bemused look on his face, Frank says out loud: “Huh! 100% biodiesel! Hmmm. Now I want some popcorn!” At that very moment, Frank’s line yanked tight. It’s going to be a great day, he thought to himself, as he began to wrestle his early morning catch. Still, he couldn’t help but think, it’s scary how sustainable you can make your fleet with 100% biodiesel!

Happy Halloween from Optimus Technologies!

The Importance of COP 26 (November 2021)

Last month, leaders from all over the world gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss climate change. Depending on who you ask, it was either successful, or an absolute disaster. The famous 18 year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg called it a “two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah.” Suffice it to say, she did not see it as a success. But she was there, because, for all of its failings, COP 26 was important.

The importance of COP 26 has less to do with the promises made by world leaders to make changes that no one believes they will actually make. I would love if the US actually sticks to its pledge to end funding for overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022, but I think that economics will drive the timing of that transition more than anything else. And even if the US does end those projects, our reliance on fossil fuels is such that we will just tap into domestic fossil fuels to make up the difference for what we would have gotten overseas. No, the importance of COP 26 lies in the conversation had. And in the justified criticism. And in the protests of the people most effected by climate change.

In the US, the EPA has identified areas of Environmental Justice, areas that bear the largest burden of industrial pollution. Whether it’s from manufacturing, transportation, or power generation, the areas that are closest to those facilities, as well as large urban city centers, these areas see pollution, climate change, and environmental abuse daily, while those that live away from those areas still reap the benefit of the things that are made there. When looked at on a global level, places like Southeast Asia, Africa, India, and the Middle East have become the manufacturing and energy providers of the world, yet they have had very little say in the policies that effect their lives directly. At the moment, they still lack the clout of America, the UK or the EU to shape policy, but they are being heard, and the news is giving them a voice. That voice may be small now, but it will grow.

We are all citizens of the world, and climate change is not going to discriminate. If we don’t cut carbon, steeply and quickly, science has clearly shown that the dominoes will fall. 110 nations pledged to end deforestation by 2030. In case anyone is counting, that still gives countries over 8 years to keep with their current policies of deforestation. And when the largest contingency of representatives at COP 26 came from fossil fuel companies, it’s clear that policy makers are hedging their bets and trying to be servants of multiple masters. People like the idea of renewable energy, but they ultimately don’t want to see their lives inconvenienced. Greta and the youth of the world are right to gripe that world leaders are more interested in maintaining the status quo than making bold, remarkable change.

So why do I remain hopeful in the aftermath of this climate showmanship? It’s easy to take a cynical view of everything that went on in Glasgow, but the truth is, that for two weeks, the world talked about climate. Presidents and prime ministers and oil magnates, they all gathered and talked about climate. Greta and her 30,000 stood outside and howled about climate. Every news outlet in the western world plastered their website with climate. And I get this moment to talk to you about climate. In my youth, in the 90s, no one mentioned climate. We talked about a hole in the ozone layer, but no one talked about reducing carbon dioxide. I printed pamphlets and spoke passionately about the need to stop destroying the rainforests to make pallet wood. I planted trees in hillsides to halt erosion. I did my projects, but no one was talking about climate, and certainly not on a global scale. Fast forward to COP 26, and now everyone is talking about climate and carbon and the lurking catastrophe waiting around the corner if we do nothing. It’s on the mind of the world, at the tip of everyone’s tongue. COP 26 was important because it gave a voice to the people who will lead the world at COP 50.