With crude-oil prices climbing to almost $40 a barrel, war in the Middle East and potentially catastrophic climate changes looming on the horizon, finding alternative sources of fuel never looked like a better idea. Devin O’Keane (on left in photo), a member of the Chico Biodiesel Collective, has been running a Mercedes-Benz station wagon on biodiesel—fuel made from vegetable oil—for two years. On the day we talked, O’Keane was converting a Dodge truck to run on straight vegetable oil.
What are you doing right now?
I’m making biodiesel by taking the vegetable oil and mixing it with a catalyst—methanol and lye. That breaks the oil down into a burnable fuel that you can pour right in your diesel tank without any modification. You can actually mix those fuels together. You can’t mix vegetable oil and diesel together, so you have to put in a second fuel tank… and then you can switch over to your other tank while you’re driving.
Is this a business for you?
No. I’m the producer; I make the fuel. There’s a group of about 10 people who all share in the responsibilities of getting the oil and getting the materials together, and then we just use it in our own vehicles. To start a business it usually takes about a million dollars to get all the permits and stuff. We’re not really there yet.
Where do you get the oil?
From restaurants around town. We get it from Pommes Frites, Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, burger joints.
Then you drive around smelling like that food.
Yeah, it smells like French fries when you’re driving around.
It doesn’t seem like the kind of project everyone would want to get into.
No, you have to be really into what you’re doing because you are getting dirty, getting greasy, you’re working with vehicles, so you have to know what you’re doing. But it’s not something that’s inaccessible to most people.
And the reason people would want to this is what?
[It’s] threefold—economic, political and environmental. The main thing is that biodiesel and vegetable oil are significantly cleaner burning than regular diesel—up to like 80 percent. You don’t have any sulfur at all, no carbon monoxide. Economically, if you’re doing it yourself at home it can be like 50 cents a gallon to produce; and if you’re doing a conversion to veggie oil, your cost for fuel is free. Politically, we believe we’re fighting wars in other countries over resources, so we just don’t want to depend on foreign sources of oil anymore.