Biodiesel can be a DIY fuel with some basic know-how and a Chico company’s machine
I arrived looking like a walking banana in my Columbia rain gear from Alaska, complete with break-up boots—only in the name of my personal safety, mind you. I was met with a bemused look.
“What’s all that for?” Mike Bevard asked, trying not to laugh.
“Well,” I replied, “we are making a type of fuel and dealing with chemicals. You have to be careful.”
“Well … umm … it’s just french-fry oil … and, umm … you don’t really need all that or … well …. OK.”
“What? Excuse me, but french fries insidiously kill people every day!” (Gosh, didn’t this guy know anything about safety?)
Mike shrugged, smiled, then donned what to me looked like a butcher’s apron. He turned and gazed around the garage with his hands on his hips.
Yes, the garage. We were going to make fuel to run real cars and trucks—in someone’s garage in Colfax, Calif. (with no permit required—so far)! We’d use a bioprocessor machine made in Chico (see sidebar on page 16) and the new Colfax contraband (it’s OK, it’s just fryer grease).
In the back of my petro mind, I recalled articles about crazy hippie kids in wildly painted, veggie-oil-fueled busses touring the United States. I remembered once that, as I was leaving a Rite Aid in San Diego, I had to wait for one of these icons to drive past me in the parking lot. This idea is not new.
The inventor of the diesel engine, a Mr. Rudolf Diesel, designed it to run on vegetable-based oils, namely peanut oil. This was in the 1890s, and here we are, looking at running cars on veggie oil as the next new thing. Making fuel from veggie oil now is a lot easier than it was then, as I learned first-hand, facing my preconceived notions.
Definitions are important to makers of alternative fuels. I raised some hackles when I clumped the used-veggie-oil fuel people in with the ethanol people. Not the same thing—"Nobody is starving from what we do,” I heard all too often from people pounding on the green podium.
Then there’s the distinction between the terms biodiesel and biofuels.
A biofuel is defined as a fuel derived from a living biomass source that is renewable. This can include plants high in cellulose (corn), wood, animal fats, manure, seed hulls, lawn clippings and recycled paper.
Biodiesel is made from veggie oils—recycled or not, derived from soybeans, canola, sunflower, rapeseed, coconut and hemp—as well as animal oils and fats. Ethanol is made from crops such as corn, wheat, and switch grass. The problem? Resources normally used for growing food (land, water, etc.) are used for growing fuel.
Veggie-oil biodiesel is a kind of biofuel. Biodiesel can be burned only in a diesel engine, while ethanol can be used in gasoline engines.
There are many more gasoline vehicles on the road in the United States than diesel, so it is easy to see where the demand lies. That ethanol may in fact contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than conventional petroleum fuels is a point of great international controversy right now.
Within the veggie-oil-fuels camp are three general kinds of advocates: RVO/WVO/UFO (recycled veggie oil, waste veggie oil or used fryer oil); SVO (straight veggie oil), and PPO (pure plant oils). Bevard is from the UFO camp. Just make sure you explain the acronym before referring to him that way …
Mike Bevard is the picture of energy independence. He not only makes his own fuel, but he also powers his house completely with solar and is off the electrical grid—as he likes saying, “I am not attached to the great umbilical cord.”
His motivation for embracing this level of independence was monetary, but also defiance of the ever-tightening corporate grip, from credit card companies to oil companies: “I mean, let’s face it, if I can’t depend on you, corporate America, I’ll just take care of myself.” To him, “freedom fries” has a whole different connotation.
Bevard is a member of a small group of Colfax neighbors who call themselves FGB (Foothills Green Biodiesel). The group makes its fuel in something that looks like a giant bread machine with a gas-pump nozzle—a Bio Pro 190 processor, from the Chico company AGR Energy. FGB bought it for $8,399.99, including shipping.
AGR—known as SpringBoard Biodiesel following its sale last week—has developed smaller but just as efficient machines that use even a wider array of natural-fuel sources.
The BioPro 190 is a remarkably simple machine to use. It seemed to have been built for idiots—no disrespect intended, but the ads almost come out and say this. ("The BioPro 190 is designed for self-contained operation, with very little user interaction: no metering or mixing chemicals. Simply add the required ingredients, press the Big Green Button, and walk away.")
The recipe starts with about 50 gallons of some kind of veggie oil, in this case used fryer oil. You also need methanol, methoxide, potassium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and water. The cost of purchasing these ingredients is about $35 to $40 per batch; one batch produces about 45 to 50 gallons of fuel.
That’s 70 to 88 cents a gallon.
Seventy cents a gallon.
The process of converting french-fry residue into biodiesel—otherwise known as fatty acid alkyl esters—involves combining the fats and oils with an alcohol, commonly methanol. Then, as in nearly every chemical reaction, a catalyst is used to drive the reaction—commonly, sodium or potassium hydroxide. Once added, it gives off fatty-acid methyl esters and a glycerol co-product. FGB produces glycerin as a byproduct (if anyone out there wants to use it to make soap or candles, let ’em know).
With this type of processor, you can use any organic oil (tallow, fats, etc.) and waste vegetable oil. The resultant fuel can run in an unmodified diesel engine. Bevard drives an unmodified diesel truck and a 2005 diesel Volkswagen Bug he fuels with his biodiesel.
When I arrived, Bevard’s garage was full of buckets and tanks of used cooking oil; methanol; bags of potassium hydroxide flakes; sulfuric acid; and water, among various and sundry things (empty beer bottles, bag of chips … don’t mix up potassium hydroxide flakes with the chips).
The source of his oil is a place I was asked not to identify except to say it is a “local restaurant.” Apparently there is run on cooking oil these days, so, as with a good stash of mushrooms in the woods, folks keep the location to themselves.
The used fryer oil has to be filtered prior to being dumped into the machine. The filtration can be “rather interesting,” Bevard said—in one batch, “we had no idea what in the hell was floating in it.”
After filtering, the oil must be “washed.” (I know: How do you wash oil?) Like everything else with this machine, you just add the water to the oil and press a button.
This is a 24-hour process. The smell of all that used cooking fuel cured me of any desire for french fries or anything fried for the next six months, so you can also think of the BioPro 190 as a weight-loss device.
Once the oil is washed, you can make the fuel. The location for each ingredient is labeled on the machine, which has two very different chutes, and the instructions come in what I thought was a very handy kind of recipe book.
We added four gallons of methanol (otherwise known as racing fuel or wood alcohol). At this point, I was feeling rather self-important, because methanol was the closest I would come to justifying my outfit. It is considered toxic if ingested, inhaled or spilled. I was prepared for the massive fumes, the burning eyes, the gasping, the doubling-over, but none of this happened. On the scale of dangerous chemicals, and at the quantity we were using …
We then added the snow-white potassium hydroxide flakes, then more methanol. To cap off our biodiesel martini, we added just a splash of sulfuric acid.
As I stood in my hyperspace rubber-banana outfit, I was disappointed that not a drop of anything hit the ground or me. I was starting to feel hot in my safety suit, and slightly stupid. I was secretly glad no one else was there as I raised my goggles to my sweaty, beady forehead. This was going far better and quicker than I ever imagined.
It was at this point that Bevard realized he did not add the ingredients in the right order. Though making biodiesel does look easy, I learned that if you mix up the order, you can blow the whole batch.
He picked up the instruction book and declared, “You add methanol to the methanol tank before adding methanol to the methoxide tank.” I watched as he hemmed and hawed and stared at the processor. “I think it’ll be OK,” he said, smiling at me.
Within a little less than two hours, we had added the ingredients to the processor and were done. Bevard then decided to head to the “local restaurant” to see if there was any oil waiting. There sat only one lonely white bucket near the dumpster outside the restaurant.
“Hmmm,” he said, scratching his chin. “Looks like someone got here before we did.”
He pulled the top off the bucket and saw it was only half full. He decided to leave it and head back.
He told me that the run on veggie oil was starting to get a little more intense. With fuel prices going higher and higher, people can make their own fuel; keep grease and oil from going into our landfills and water supply; build community co-ops and interdependency; and empower themselves. We speculated how long it would be before somebody, be it a corporation or government, clamped down on this kind of homespun energy independence—probably not too long.
Bevard and I returned to the garage to check on the processor. Everything seemed to be fine. It was time to go home. I told him I needed to get gas, knowing what was coming. He pointed to his truck and said, “Well, dear, my tank is full.” He gave me a big smile and drove off.
One of us was definitely smiling more than the other. My rain gear was piled up in the back of my Subaru, and I was heading to Chevron to get gas from the great corporate umbilical cord. As I watched the dollar amount click ever higher, a small project in someone’s garage using a machine made in Chico was hammering home a whopper of a point: The “average citizen” has to change the world because nobody else will.