Greasing the wheels

Steve Bash

Photo By Larry Dalton

The conversation in Steve Bash’s driveway, between Bash and his friend Jarred Brech, easily could have been that of two gear heads shooting the breeze. They mostly talked about their trucks, how they planned to modify them over the summer.

It was routine enough, until Brech exclaimed, “You’ve got to smell this!” After firing up his diesel Ford, the two men huddled around the truck’s exhaust pipe and breathed deeply.

Choking on toxic fumes wasn’t a problem because the truck runs on recycled vegetable oil (“grease” as the men like to say), and its emissions, compared with regular diesel exhaust, are fairly benign. Biodiesel, as it is more commonly called, gives off only about half of the harmful carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hydrocarbons that come from burning petroleum-based diesel. And the faint scent of fried food is almost pleasant.

Bash talked with SN&R about how an “epiphany at the pump” changed his life, and why he hasn’t been to the gas station in years.

(More information about biodiesel is available at

What got you into biodiesel?

I saw the MTBE [methyl tertiary butyl ether] sign at the pump one day, and I had a kind of revelation. When I saw the sign on the gas pump, I freaked out. I thought, “This is the epitome of human ignorance.” Some leaders, in charge of the welfare of their people, know that something is toxic, and they leave it in the gas. Then, they put a sign on it saying they know it’s toxic. It made me nuts. I thought, “As I drive away from this pump, I’m going to be an MTBE distributor.” I thought, there’s got to be another way. In two weeks, I found it. I found this book by this guy who drove around on vegetable oil, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank. Boom! It was a no-brainer.

How does it work?

Biodiesel is really simple. Simple chemistry, simple recycling. Any diesel engine will run on vegetable oil, but it’s too thick to run through the lines. Because of that thickness, you can get the injectors clogged. The way the modern diesel cars are built, they aren’t built to accommodate vegetable oil. They are built to accommodate fossil diesel, which is very thin. You have to thin it with a little alcohol. That’s one way. You also can heat it to thin it. But I don’t have that kind of rig in my car. We have a video called Biodiesel Homebrew How-To.

Why is it called biodiesel?

Diesel is a man, not a fuel. His name was Rudolph Diesel. He lived in the late 1800s, early 1900s. He was an inventor who set out to create an engine that would allow people to make their own fuel. The internal combustion engine had already been invented, running on gasoline. It was obvious to him that no matter how much oil there was, it would still be in limited supply, and we would all be dependent on whoever could extract it from the ground. It wasn’t going to be mom and pop. You could call him a visionary. He invented this engine that would burn vegetable oil. He introduced it to the 1900 World’s Fair, and it ran on peanut oil. People wanted it because they could grow their own fuel. The oil companies immediately found a way to run less-refined gasoline in his engine, what we continue to call diesel fuel. But diesel fuel was always meant to be vegetable oil.

Is this expensive to do?

It costs me 52 cents a gallon. That doesn’t count my time. It takes two to four hours to make a 45-gallon batch. The restaurants are where we get the oil. I get the vegetable oil for free from restaurants, after they use it. Three billion gallons of cooking oil gets used every year in America. It could be making fuel. I think it would offset about 2 percent of our oil use.

Will biodiesel save the world?

Biodiesel is just biodiesel. Biodiesel will not save anybody or anything. What’s going to rescue us is becoming aware of our choices and exercising them. Biodiesel is just one of the choices we can make. I just want people to be aware that we have choices. Granted, this isn’t as easy as going to the pump. But what’s the real cost of going to the pump? Where is it leading us? We don’t have to look too far to see. It’s obvious to me what the primary cause of terrorism is. If we’re going to war to control oil-producing countries, and our president is an oilman, the cause of terrorism is our dependence on oil. If we continue to look to leaders who are going to keep us dependent on it for their own profit, then it’s clear to me that we need to become leaders ourselves. As I often say, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.