From French Fries to Fuel
Vegetable-derived biodiesel is hot stuff
"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum." –Dr. Rudolph Diesel, 1912
Full Cycle in 100 Years
Did you know that the diesel engine was originally invented to run on vegetable oil? When Dr. Rudolph Diesel, the creator of the engine that would bear his name, first showed his newfangled contraption at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris, it was fueled by peanut oil. His engine, Dr. Diesel boasted, was more flexible and cheaper to run than gasoline engines; automobiles could be run on cheap and readily available peanut or hemp oil. Eventually, the vegetable-as-fuel idea was dropped when it was discovered that the engine could be modified to run just as well (and more cheaply) on a crude byproduct of the gasoline refining process. Even though there have been many changes to the original design over the past hundred years, these powerful engines have always retained a certain amount of their original flexibility. Recently, rising gas prices and increased demand for environmentally friendly transportation have brought diesel technology into the limelight again.
In the past few years, there has been a surge of interest in companies like Greasecar that sell kits for converting diesel vehicles to run on vegetable oil reclaimed from restaurants. Green Party candidates are fond of running grease-powered cars, and rock bands, who most often tour the country in diesel-powered busses, have been vocal in their support of grease power.
Though many people have driven for thousands of miles on waste vegetable oil (WVO) problem-free, opponents of the WVO method say that it causes excess fatty acids from the oil to build up inside the engine and clog the fuel injectors, decreasing the life of the engine. Unfortunately, there haven't been very many good studies on the long-term effects of straight vegetable oil (SVO) or WVO, and debate rages over the issue.
In the meantime, commercial fleet managers and environmentally minded drivers are turning to biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil. Although there are biodiesel processors in California and Hawaii that recycle used cooking oil, most of this fuel comes from American-grown soybeans.
A decade ago, the soybean industry and renderers got together and decided it would be in their best interest to take surpluses of soybeans and turn them into an alternative fuel. This year, the biodiesel industry will receive the highest government subsidies in their history, about $2.50 per gallon over and above the sale price of biodiesel.
Small-scale, backyard biodiesel production does not benefit from the same governmental stamp of approval. As Tim McGivern previously reported in the Alibi (“Coverage You Can't Count On,” June 24, 2004), when Lu Yoder's bosque property caught on fire earlier this summer, authorities were immediately suspicious of his biodiesel processor. Sheriff Darren White called it strange, suspicious, not stable and dangerous, saying, "obviously it will need to be disassembled." Of course, authorities later cleared the processor of any connection to the fire and declared that it was neither hazardous nor illegal. In fact, biodiesel is less toxic than salt and biodegrades faster than sugar.
Making Your Own Biodiesel
Backyard production of biodiesel is far from becoming a common Saturday afternoon project, but should you decide to take the project on, only folks as ignorant as our Sheriff Darren White will accuse you of building a new and improved meth lab. Yoder built his processor himself, but Real Goods, a California-based alternative energy retailer, has sold more than 200 of their FuelMeister kits in the past year. The $3,000 kit can make 40 gallons of biodiesel per day.
Making biodiesel is actually very similar to making soap. In both processes, used cooking oil (or even bacon grease) is combined with lye (sodium hydroxide) and water. To make biodiesel, methanol (wood alcohol) is added to cause a chemical reaction that, instead of soap, produces fuel. The only byproducts are glycerin and water.
Yoder gets his waste oil from restaurants but he's choosy about the quality of the oil. On what he calls his "whaling" expeditions, Yoder takes a small kit to test the oil's fatty acid content. When he finds good oil, he pumps it into a 55-gallon drum and brings it back to his South Valley home to run it through his homemade processor. He and his roommate pour off the resulting biodiesel as needed to fuel their tractor, panel truck and Volkswagen Rabbit pickup.
Getting a Real Goods kit would be the easy way to make your own biodiesel. Yoder and his roommate Peter Gallo made theirs with the help of online information and booklets like Maria "Mark" Alovert's Biodiesel Homebrew Guide and Joshua Tickell's From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank. The process involves a little bit of math, a fair amount of chemistry and a lot of dedication. For Yoder and Gallo, it's worth it.
Though people would certainly be interested in buying his homebrew, Yoder says he isn't able to or interested in selling the stuff. He quotes what he says is a Puerto Rican proverb, “From the word to the deed is a great chasm.” By this he means that it's great to talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and using fuels that are better for the environment, but it's more important to actually do it. He says he wants simply to do the right thing and share the results of his work with others. Biodiesel fans often compare the process to the open source method of software development in which programmers make changes and improvements to a program and share their results for free.
A Failed Experiment
As someone who gets paid to haul away used cooking oil, Phil Krepfl of AAA Pumping Service should have an economic incentive to make his own biodiesel. "I'm a huge fan of biodiesel," Krepfl says. "On a massive scale, or on a very small scale, it makes great sense—or if you're a hardcore environmentalist." Krepfl set up a small-scale biodiesel processor at AAA Pumping, thinking he could power the company's fleet of diesel vehicles using the same waste oil they collect.
What he found was that, "they make it sound really easy and really cheap and it's not." He explains, "There's a myth that waste oil is free. It's not free. Yes, we pick it up and in some cases we pay for it. In some cases, we pay to remove it. But it is a commodity, so we lose revenue in that we're not selling it when we could be." After a short-lived experiment, Krepfl found that he could save money and be Earth-friendly by abandoning his biodiesel processor and updating his fleet to more efficient and less polluting trucks.
His new trucks run on conventional diesel. He says, "we found out that the environmental benefits weren't what we thought they'd be. In older diesels [using a blend of 20 percent biodiesel] the environmental results are what they advertise. But newer cars ... are as clean as an older one on biodiesel. Spending the extra money to get that extra bit of reduction didn't make sense." He remains a supporter of biodiesel, however. "It fills a niche that should be filled," he insists, "provided you've got the financing."
Ed Leno* is interested in helping the environment, but, more importantly, he's interested in saving money. For his part-time job as a delivery driver, Leno puts more than 200 miles per week on his Volkswagen bus. He is also a mechanic fond of old Volkswagens, mostly of the diesel variety. Lately he's been using a gas-powered bus for his route, but he's paid per stop and not reimbursed for fuel. Gas prices have been putting a big dent in his budget lately, so he's eager to finish the project laid out in his North Valley shop: a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit pickup. It's a diesel and if it's anything like his previous Rabbits, it'll get nearly 50 miles per gallon. That efficiency, combined with the fact that Leno fills his tank with a blend of conventional diesel and waste vegetable oil, means that his wallet will be a little bit fatter once the truck is running.
Most people who run their cars on SVO do so using a conversion kit like those sold by Greasecar.com or Greasel.com. Vehicles converted to run on 100 percent SVO use a two-tank system. They retain the original diesel tank, and conventional or biodiesel must be used to start and stop the car. A second tank holds the vegetable oil and a heater (the oil will congeal in cold temperatures). The driver starts the car using regular fuel, then, a few minutes later, presses a button that switches to the vegetable oil tank. The result is a cheaper, more environmentally friendly car.
Though the kits cost just under $1,000, drivers must still hunt for used vegetable oil, filter it and pour it into the secondary tank. For most drivers this is too much hassle. But for handy, environmentally-concerned and economy-minded drivers like Ed Leno, grease works. He figures that using grease saves him about $2,000 per year.
After years of research, tinkering and information sharing with other grease guys, Leno decided last year to forgo the two-tank system for his simpler method of mixing fuels in the car's original tank. This method only works in the summer, though, when ambient heat is enough to keep the grease liquefied. In the winter, he runs straight diesel or purchased biodiesel.
On his last truck, a 1982 Rabbit pickup, he drove 30,000 miles using this system, until other issues forced him to give the truck up. Leno picks up five-gallon buckets of used fryer oil from a local bar and brings it back to the shop where he filters it first through a regular kitchen strainer and then through a superfine filter, into a plastic 55-gallon drum. When it's time to fill up he puts about five gallons of diesel in the tank and adds about 10 gallons of grease. Then, he shakes the car. Yes, he grabs it by the roof rack and shakes the car. This, he says, incorporates the diesel and oil. He tested this method in a small jar that he took with him on a long road trip, periodically checking to see if the mixture would separate or congeal. It didn't separate and only congealed when the temperature dropped to 43 degrees.
Leno admits, "This isn't for everybody." Some of the newer diesel cars have advanced fuel injection systems that can balk at grease power; older diesel cars and trucks, like '70s and '80s Volkswagens and Mercedes, are ideal candidates. Because Leno is a mechanic, has time to tinker with his vehicles and has a pressing economic incentive, it works for him. “Ideally, in an unmodified vehicle, I'd say buy or make biodiesel. In the summer, mix it with grease, and in the winter use straight biodiesel.”
It should be noted that in Europe, Volkswagen warranties cars that run on 100 percent biodiesel, but in the United States the company reserves the right not to cover cars damaged by biodiesel use. Nevertheless, folks like Ed Leno are experimenting with using grease in different ways while companies like Greasecar sell hundreds of kits per year—even in brand new Volkswagens.
For the new car buyer looking for a car that gets great mileage without emitting a toxic tailpipe plume, the combination of a new Volkswagen diesel car and bought or homebrewed biodiesel is appealing. But exactly how does a biofueled diesel car compare to a regular gas car? It's complicated.
The Environmental Equation
Historically, diesel engines have been known to be highly efficient but dirty. In the '70s, during the last gas crisis, they gained a reputation for being loud, smelly, polluting and rough-riding. Though you can still see big rigs discharging plumes of black smoke as they lurch up the highway on-ramps, the new diesel engines found in many European cars and Volkswagens made for the American market are equally fuel efficient (up to 50 mpg) and less polluting than ever.
A car using regular diesel fuel produces carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and other toxic emissions. The most popular biodiesel is B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent conventional diesel. Using B20 brings significant reductions in the emissions that contribute to global warming and acid rain. Using 100 percent biodiesel (B100) which is also available but costs around $1 more per gallon, virtually eliminates the emission of sulfates that contribute to acid rain. It also reduces emissions of carbon monoxide, particulates and hydrocarbons by about 50 percent. Nitrogen oxide (N20) emissions do increase slightly using biodiesel.
In addition, biodiesel is one of the few commercially available fuels that actually gives more energy than it took to produce. Diesel made from soybean oil produces three times as much energy as was required to process it. By comparison, gasoline gives 26 percent less energy than it uses in processing.
The good news is that using efficient vegetable oil-based biodiesel in the newer, cleaner diesel engines can bring levels of toxic emissions of the diesel engine close to those of gas-powered vehicles. Bringing diesel emissions down to gas engine levels gas engines is good but not great. Gas engines still do not produce levels of emissions that are beneficial to the environment. Those who choose biodiesel are attracted by the combination of great fuel efficiency, recycling waste vegetable oil, reducing dependence on foreign oil and choosing from a fairly wide range of diesel Volkswagens, some Mercedes and heavy-duty pickup trucks.
Hybrids, gas and electric cars that use gas to charge a powerful battery, get even better gas mileage than diesel cars and produce very low emissions. Right now, they're the best we've got, but they're also relatively expensive and hard to come by; automakers alot fewer hybrids to less populous states like New Mexico that have cleaner air. At American Toyota in Albuquerque the wait for a hybrid Prius is more than a year. Garcia Honda's hybrid Insight and Civic are also waitlisted, although only for a few months. There are several new models slated to be released in 2005 and later that should alleviate these problems.
Hydrogen-powered cars, using fuel-cell technology will require no fossil fuels and emit no pollution. They are the wave of the future—and that's the problem. They're still at least a decade away from mass market availability.
The State Does Something Smart for Once
In the meantime, biodiesel can help to reduce pollution from vehicles it isn't possible or economically feasible to replace. New Mexico, specifically the Energy Conservation and Management Division, has been working on promoting biodiesel since 2002. The state received grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities Program, and they've been spending it on switching many of the state's diesel fleets over to biodiesel.
The idea is that switching from dirty diesel fuel to the cleaner B20 biodiesel blend is the quickest and cheapest way to make a noticeable difference in air pollution. It's relatively cheap because unlike SVO or compressed natural gas (CNG) systems, using biodiesel provides environmental benefits without the cost of investing in new vehicles or conversions. In theory, all of the state's diesel vehicles, from trash trucks to school buses, could start running on biodiesel tomorrow.
Renewable Energy Partners of New Mexico (REPNM), a nonprofit organization, got the contract to help manage the state's biodiesel project. So far, the joint effort has resulted in local fuel company Eveready Oil agreeing to bring in B20 and B100. The B20 is available retail at their Downtown filling station (First Street at Mountain); B100 is sold wholesale at their Anderson and Broadway station. They also distribute B20 to the national laboratories, including Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Labs. (The labs each operate hundreds of diesel vehicles.) UNM has switched their 2,000-gallon storage tank to biodiesel and uses it to run six diesel buses, three garbage trucks, seven other trucks and three tractors. Bernalillo County is now in the process of finalizing the hookup of a 1,000-gallon biodiesel tank that will fuel the county's fleet of about 65 diesel vehicles.
A public biodiesel fueling station is set to open in Santa Fe this summer and REPNM is working on convincing more private distributors to sell biodiesel in other parts of the state.
“Not a Panacea”
As Lu Yoder says, "Biodiesel is not a panacea for the transportation crisis." While he does encourage more people to make and use biodiesel, Yoder is keen to suggest something more radical by far: Ride bicycles. He argues that we should work hard to choose the appropriate vehicle for every trip; a bicycle for a short ride to work, a small car to take the kids to a soccer game or a big truck to bring home 55-gallon drums of waste vegetable oil.
Phil Krepfl feels strongly that biodiesel fills a niche that should be filled, but he too takes a broad view of its role. "Right now ... buy a hybrid," he says, and wait for fuel cell technology to make petroleum obsolete. "This [making biodiesel] is a fun thing to do as a science project but, otherwise, go down to the station and buy it—or just use regular diesel."
Ed Leno remains enthusiastic about the economic benefits of using waste vegetable oil in older Volkswagens. But for regular folks, is using grease or biodiesel worth it? Like everything else, it's complicated. Every interested driver will have to do his own cost-benefit analysis. Start with a big piece of paper and a pencil with a good eraser. Jot down some facts and ask yourself some serious questions. Diesel costs about the same as gas. B20 costs about 30 cents more. In new cars, diesel engines cost about $2,000 more. Older diesels are cheap but hard to find. Do you commute long distances? Are you a chemistry teacher looking for a fun project? Do you work at a fried chicken restaurant?
*Not his real name. Alternative fuel users often run into problems with manufacturers and insurance companies who are hostile to the idea of using biodiesel or WVO. For this reason he asked us to protect his identity.