Making biodiesel at home can be dangerous
Concocting this clean, renewable fuel at home isn’t for the timid
Kevin Pardi doesn’t want to scare people. But considering the dangerous chemicals, high pressures and hot temperatures involved with making biodiesel at home, anything can happen.
Pardi knows from experience. During his first time making biodiesel almost 10 years ago, he failed to attach a pressure-release valve needed for ventilation. The tub started shaking violently, and he thought it was going to explode (it didn’t). He’s also heard horror stories about spilled chemicals causing severe skin burns.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has had serious problems making biodiesel,” he said. “And people give up.”
While this Rancho Cordova resident doesn’t want to worry do-it-yourselfers, he also doesn’t want them to downplay the importance of safety or abandon their hopes of making a clean-burning, renewable motor fuel out of fear. He wants to help educate them. And soon he’ll be offering consultations to aspiring biodiesel enthusiasts. He’ll provide guidance and clients will supply materials which, he said, shouldn’t cost more than $10, including a 2-liter clear plastic soda bottle, antifreeze from an auto-parts store, pure lye, vegetable oil, a small plastic funnel, gloves, goggles and rags.
Sounds like making biodiesel should be easy enough, right? Wrong. A basic Internet search reveals thousands of tips for at-home biodiesel production, but while the materials may be cheap and the process simple, the application is difficult, leaving plenty of room for error.
“It’s sort of like reading the Bible,” Pardi said. “Ten people read the same passage and come up with 10 different interpretations.”
The first step is to buy cooking oil from the grocery store or legally obtain used cooking oil from local restaurants (state law requires that biodiesel makers get a grease-hauling license from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and be registered as a fuel supplier through the Board of Equalization).
Making biodiesel involves filtering and heating vegetable oil, then adding and heating sodium hydroxide and methanol to make sodium methoxide. The methoxide mixture is added to a reactor, which causes a chemical reaction known as transesterification. Once the mixture settles, the biodiesel is transferred to a wash tank to clean out residue contaminants and methanol. The final step is to dry the washed biodiesel. Glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production, may be used to make soap for household cleaning and laundry.
A few cardinal safety rules exist: Wear gloves and goggles, do everything slowly at arm’s length, and make sure winds aren’t blowing in your direction. After the chemicals are poured and bubble, the mixture gets hot and produces steam, which releases toxic vapors. Methanol—inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin—can cause blindness or even death. Sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns if not handled properly.
Pardi first developed an interest in biodiesel back when he lived in Portland, Ore. An alchemical hypnotherapist by profession and inventor by hobby, once he understood the basic concept, he built his own reactor through trial and error. Eventually, he made biodiesel for a co-op up north, but now in Sacramento, he buys from the Sacramento Biofuels Network. This San Francisco native’s passion for biodiesel revived itself again recently, in part because of his growing frustration with the war in Iraq.
“I think fighting for oil is fighting for an old, dying, dinosaur petrochemical. We need to focus on viable, renewable fuels so we’re not so dependent on oil,” said Pardi, who also touts the financial and environmental benefits of clean energy.
“You’d have to be dense not to realize there are major climatic changes happening,” he said. “But biodiesel is totally biodegradable.”
Pardi, who drives a Mercedes (with a converted engine), said biodiesel makes the idle on the engine smoother and increases the car’s horsepower and fuel economy. All in all, he thinks it’s just the smart way to go.
“Making biodiesel is not as easy as people think,” he said. “But it’s very rewarding when it works.”