The Beauty of Biodiesel, Nov 05 | New Use for Old Oil

Steve Fugate explains the biofuel system to State Trooper Renz and his son Nate, who drove all the way from Indiana to attend a Yoderville Biodiesel workshop.

As the story goes, when Rudolf Diesel first revved up his revolutionary namesake engine at the 1900 Paris Exposition, it burbled away beautifully on good old peanut oil. Diesel, a visionary in his day, had designed an engine that could run on vegetable- and plant-based oils, thus enabling farmers to grow their own fuel.

It seemed a common sense vision, yet by the early 20th century, gasoline producers had effectively harnessed the diesel fuel market, mass-marketing their cheap and plentiful diesel petroleum distillate. Today, however, as the worldwide oil supply plummets and gas prices soar, a growing number of diesel engine owners are turning once again to the vegetable kingdom for fuel.

Biodiesel fuels—those made from vegetable oil, spent fryer oil, or a combination of veggie oil and diesel—are homegrown, easier on the environment, and, when used properly, often easier on vehicles themselves.

Fill ’er Up…with Egg Rolls?

“I use used vegetable oil, preferably from Chinese restaurants, because I like the way it smells the best,” says Jim Meyer of Fairfield, who has adapted, or “retrofitted,” his Mercedes to accept veggie oil as fuel. “You smell it when it’s burning, definitely,” he laughs. “But it’s not that heavy of a scent, and it’s not nearly as bad as diesel.”

Meyer, who is in the Air National Guard, added a second “oil fuel” tank to his car “for environmental reasons” and because he likes “to tinker.” Says Jim, “That second tank has radiant lines running through it that heat the oil to approximately 180 degrees. When it reaches that hot of a temperature [and passes through a filter] it can be effectively used as a fuel.”

Effectively, indeed—Meyer has been bombing around on discarded restaurant oil for two years now. He simply obtains spent fryer oil from restaurant owners, filters it once through cheesecloth to remove food solids, pours it in the tank, where it’s refined a second time by a heated filter in his car, and off he goes.

Every restaurant in the world that serves French fries, chicken wings, and other fried foods generates spent fryer oil. In the U.S. alone, 3 to 4 billion gallons are created per year and dumped into landfills, used in pet food and cosmetics, and (gak!) filtered and sold as “cooking oil” to third-world countries.

Here in the Midwest, restaurant owners pay good money to have their grease hauled away, so they’re thrilled to load it off on people like Meyer. (On the more progressive West Coast, however, veggie-based fuels are more common, and many restaurants actually charge for it.)

Like regular diesel, Straight Veggie Oil (SVO) fuel has a reputation for gelling somewhat in cooler temperatures and becoming problematic. Meyers, however, says he used veggie fuel without incident all last winter. “I just warm the car up a little longer,” he says, “Typically, I warm up on diesel fuel for 10 to 15 minutes, then I flip a fuel switch and drive on vegetable oil. Then, before I shut the engine off, I cool down on diesel for 1 to 2 minutes.”

When you do the math, fueling up on French-fry grease starts to sound pretty good. While the rest of America’s diesel-vehicle owners are forking over about $100 a month on fuel, Meyer spends $25 a month on the little diesel he needs to run his car. He spends exactly $0 on vegetable oil, and perhaps 1 or 2 hours a week curing and filtering the stuff.

“At $3 a gallon…!” says Jim, “an hour or two a week of my time is well worth it from the monetary savings alone, let alone the environmental impact.”

While there isn’t yet a large body of research on SVO’s air emissions, it has been determined that, as compared to diesel, SVO emits no sulphur, much lower unburnt hydrocarbons, and somewhat lower carbon monoxide and particulates. Translation: veggie fuel reduces air pollution and is much better than diesel for the environment (although SVO does produce slightly elevated nitrogen oxides, critical components of photochemical smog).

For those interested in fueling up on veggie oil (sorry, diesel engines only!), retrofit kits range from about $600 into the thousands. With his car, Meyer just “piecemealed everything together for several hundred dollars,” but he strongly recommends seeking an expert unless you really know what you’re doing.

By all means, do not just pour new or used oil directly into your gas tank—unless you’re really looking to gum things up.

Commercial Biodiesel

Of course, not all of us are charmed by the idea of lugging used Hardee’s oil home and filtering it for fuel. Some of us would rather not spend the time and money required to retrofit our diesel engines. For us well-intentioning yet lazy eco-crusaders, God created commercial biodiesel pumps.

Commercial biodiesel is an alternative, clean-burning fuel that’s made by putting veggie oils and fats—like soybean oil or animal fats—through a refinery process called transesterification (using alchohol as a catalyst to remove the glycerin). Like SVO, commercial biodiesel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and virtually free of sulfur. Unlike SVO, it’s virtually free of aromatics. And also unlike SVO, it requires little or no engine modifications.

All commercial biodiesels are not created equal. There is B-100, which is “pure” recycled vegetable oil, and then there are numerous petroleum-oil blends, all of which have different performance levels. Some commercial biodiesel blends contain as little as 2 percent actual recycled veggie oil.
Commercial biodiesel is registered as a fuel and fuel additive with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is available in all 50 states. Its proponents are quick to emphasize that, unlike SVO, it has been rigorously tested and is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health-effects testing requirementsof the 1990 Clean Air Act Ammendments.

Neat (100 percent) biodiesel has also been designated an alternative fuel by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Many municipalities run city vehicles on it (Denver is a top consumer), and the U.S. Navy is the world’s largest biodiesel purchaser (biodiesel biodegrades beautifully and helps preserve marine life).

Right now, commercial biodiesel runs for $2.80 a gallon, versus $3.10 for petroleum-based diesel. A mere 30 cents per gallon may not seem to be a huge savings, but there is certainly great merit in cutting back on toxic emissions and foreign-oil dependency.

Commercial biodiesel has its fair share of famous fans. Rocker-cum-eco-bunny Bonnie Rait recently commenced a year-long-tour, during which she will crusade for environmental causes, charioted by two buses juiced up with commercial biodiesel. Said Raitt recently, “I believe we should do everything we can to minimize our impact on the planet, and using biodiesel is a simple step that goes a long way.”

Daryl Hannah’s also a spokesperson, and Willie Nelson has his own line of truck stops, BioWillie Diesel Fuel, which does booming business in Texas. Commercial biodiesel is available at a pump (or distributer) near you. There are at least 15 in Iowa.

Homemade Biodiesel

Finally, there are those among us who prefer the middle road. People who want to protect the environment and who don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty. People who don’t want to bother with retrofitting, and who sure don’t want to smell like chicken wings every time they turn the key. For those folks, homemade biodiesel’s the way to go.

“There’s nothing like it out there,” says Steve Fugate of the Yoderville Biodiesel Co-op, between Kalona and Iowa City. “It’s extremely clean burning. You don’t have any soot coming out of the tailpipe, unlike with diesel, where you’re spewing big clouds.”

Homemade biodiesel, if you make it properly, is virtually the same product as (if not better than) commercial biodiesel, but without the EPA approval.I t’s by no means illegal to make and use it, but it’s not registered with the government as a legal fuel for commercial sale.

The chemical processing is similar—you heat the oil, use a catalyst (such as methoxide) to remove the glycerine, and voila! you have fuel! The main difference between commercial and homemade biodiesel, according to Fugate, is that there are all sorts of regulatory hurdles to mass-producing and selling the latter.

“Unfortunately, there’s no practical way to sell it,” saysFugate, “The laws are all set up for the major petrochemical companies,” who are, in effect, the same corporations that cleared veggie-based fuels out ofthe market in Rudolf Diesel’s day. According to Fugate, the National Biodiesel Board requires membership and exorbitant per-batch testing fees from biodiesel producers who wish to sell their product en masse. “The system is set up for Phillips and BPs that sell tens of thousands of dollars of gasper week,” he says.

So for now, Fugate and the ten or so members of the Yoderville Biodiesel Co-op are producing biodiesel in smaller batches for co-op members. They also make it their mission to educate people about the benefits of biodiesel. “We’re here to spread the word,” says Fugate, who is also the manager of Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn. “We do workshops and outreach and we process a lot of fuel. For workshops, we get people from South Dakota, New Hampshire, Saskatchewan, everywhere,” he says.

Luckily for Fugate and his group, the Hamburg Inn produces a regular stream of usable spent-fryer grease for the co-op to convert. Other restaurants in the region are also happy to donate their used oil.

By now a great connoisseur of grease, Fugate says, “The better the oil you start with, the better the biodiesel. Basically, if the oil is bad for you, it’s probably bad for your car.” McDonald’s ranks very low on his list. “It’s terribly bad oil,” he says, whereas the pristine spent fryer oil from Iowa City’s Oasis Falafel restaurant is his favorite. (For the record, Jim Meyer says his motor absolutely purrs on the recycled sesame massage oils used in copious quantities in Fairfield’s The Raj spa.)

Rather than clogging engines, a high-quality biodiesel or blend can actually (if used properly) improve engine efficiency and longevity. According to experts, pure biodiesel (B-100, which is what Yoderville produces) has a solvent effect that can help to release previous diesel deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes.

“But it’s not completely trouble-free,” admits Fugate, who says that he adds extra diesel to his own fuel in the winter, to ward off gelling. The co-op is also working to develop a gel-point enhancer additive to help biodiesel perform better at lower temperatures.

For Fugate and his fellow co-op members, biodiesel’s many strengthsmake putting up with its few weaknesses worthwhile. “The general publicwants a real easy, trouble-free, cheap, turnkey solution,” he says. “Unfortunately,there aren’t any. We’re not going to find anything cheaper thanpetroleum and completely trouble free.”

For now, Fugate is happy to put in a little extra elbow grease to help the planet, reduce dependency on foreign oil, and maybe even save a little money in the process. “It’s a labor of love,” he says.

For details on Yoderville Biodiesel Co-op, visit Other informative websites are and