Grease Is the Word
Story and photos by David A. Fryxell
No, the exhaust from Tom Gibbons' diesel-fueled white pickup truck does not smell like French fries—not yet. Some users of biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from, among other things, discarded restaurant grease, do report a faint, trailing aroma lingering from the fuel's previous use. But Gibbons and his Silver City biodiesel club probably won't produce their first batch until sometime in early January.
The inaugural "mixing party" was supposed to have been today, Gibbons explains, clambering out of his pickup. Disappointment narrows his dark eyes and creases his long face, which vaguely resembles a leaner version of retired general and 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark.
"When it's cold, the oil starts to gel, and the pump I was using crapped out on me," Gibbons explains. That meant the biodiesel-to-be awaiting in a 175-gallon tank out back of the Golden Corral restaurant couldn't be coaxed out for the mixing party, which had to be cancelled. "That's where we're stuck right now. It's just too thick."
Gibbons wears a pale tan jacket against the chill, and the skies over Santa Clara are anomalously cloudy for southern New Mexico. Winter is the "worst-case scenario" for conducting a biodiesel-production test, Gibbons says, because of that congealing of the raw material. He shrugs—maybe it's better that way. By summer, they'll have the kinks worked out.
Across the country, with post-Hurricane Katrina gas prices spiking and talk of "peak oil" pointing to nowhere but down for future production (see "Running on Empty?" in the December 2005 Desert Exposure), interest in working the kinks out of biodiesel has suddenly gotten hotter than a French fry fresh out of the deep fryer. According to the National Biodiesel Board (www.biodiesel.org), biodiesel production in 2005 was expected to reach 75 million gallons—triple the total for the previous year. The recently passed Federal Energy Bill, spearheaded by New Mexico's two US senators, extended a biodiesel tax credit through 2008, authorized $5 million a year for biodiesel research, and mandated 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel usage by 2012—primarily ethanol, but also biodiesel.
Belying its humble, even greasy origins, biodiesel has become chic. Recording stars including Neil Young and Bonnie Raitt are touring in buses fueled by a mix of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent conventional diesel. Raitt hosted a benefit for biodiesel education in Tennessee last month. Willie Nelson, who is a partner in his own biodiesel company, will headline the National Biodiesel Conference and Expo, Feb. 5-8 in San Diego.
"The recent energy crunch causes us to think about energy in a way that we haven't in decades," says National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe. "Americans are recognizing that conservation and alternative energy are a big part of the answer to our energy questions. Many alternative energy sources are theoretical. But with biodiesel, we can supplement our energy immediately."
Gibbons got connected with other local biodiesel enthusiasts in part through the Gila Regional Community email list (see Desert Exposure's sustainability links), beginning this past summer. "There seemed to be enough energy and interest to form a group," he says. "For now, officially it's a club. We're starting on a small scale while we convince ourselves we can do this.
"The idea was to get away from dependency on petroleum-based oil," he elaborates. "Plus biodiesel cuts pollution 75 percent compared to pure diesel. In my way of thinking, biodiesel is not a solution to the petroleum problem—there's not enough restaurant oil to replace imported oil—but it is a concrete way to show people we can do something locally, on a simple level. It's not dependent on large corporations. It's taking control of this aspect of our lives."
The biodiesel club's board consists of Gibbons, Connie Adler and Gordon West, who runs Gila Wood Net in Santa Clara, where the nascent biodiesel operation found a home. Gibbons leads the way past an in-progress log cabin, into Gila Wood Net's high-beamed workspace, where freshly sawn lumber scents the air and the sounds of "A Prairie Home Companion" murmur from an unseen radio. A side room, barely bigger than a closet, holds the barrels and gear of the biodiesel club.
The setup looks a bit like a moonshine still. A pair of blue barrels, one dark and one bright, flank a white plastic container that narrows to a funnel at its base. Lines of PVC pipe and clear plastic tubing add to the moonshine effect. On the concrete floor by the darker blue barrel sit a small, yellow electric heater and four grease-stained brown boxes with white caps and plastic drums of used oil within. "This Side Up," blue letters on the boxes instruct. "Do not reuse."
Ordinarily, restaurants like the Golden Corral or Nancy's Silver Cafe, where the oil here came from, must pay companies in Albuquerque or El Paso to come haul away their used grease—mostly soybean oil, but also canola and other oils. The grease haulers sell it to places ranging from feedlots to cosmetic companies.
Gibbons smiles. "Tell people that's what they're putting on their faces!" he says, pointing at the greasy container.
Biodiesel-club volunteers have contacted local restaurants to arrange an alternative disposition of their discarded oil. "We need to convince the restaurants that we're reliable," says Gibbons. "Right now we're working with Golden Corral to establish a track record, so we can use them as a reference. Eventually we might be able to set it up so the restaurants pay us, say, half the price they now pay companies to pick up their used oil."
Sorry, though, he's not interested in the vat of oil you used to deep-fry that Thanksgiving turkey—"We don't want to go that way, dealing with individuals. We're trying to control the manner in which we collect the oil, so we don't over-commit."
He figures—ballpark—that in Silver City alone restaurants consume about 3,000-4,000 gallons of cooking oil. "The conversion is almost one to one," Gibbons says. "You get almost one gallon of biodiesel from a gallon of oil, maybe a little less. Obviously, though, that's not enough to replace all the diesel used in town."
Initially, at least, the biodiesel club will sell fuel to its members, probably at about $2.75 a gallon; the most active volunteers will get a price break. Cost per gallon to make the biodiesel will be about $1, Gibbons guesses, not counting people's time. Most of the three days or so it takes to brew up a batch is "settling time," as he describes it, with a few hours of physical labor interspersed. He figures it took about $1,500 to set up the club's biodiesel facility, and once they get going it should produce 300-400 gallons of fuel a month.
Rudolf Diesel would have approved of such "homebrew" efforts. The inventor of diesel fuel imagined a future in which ordinary farmers made fuel for themselves and their neighbors from everyday crops, especially peanuts. "The use of plant oil as fuel may seem insignificant today," Diesel wrote in a 1912 patent application. "But such products can in time become just as important as kerosene and these coal-tar products of today."
Pretty much any plant—or other organic material, for that matter—can be processed into biodiesel. The Wall Street Journal recently reported, in fact, on a plant in Missouri that's producing up to 500 gallons a day of diesel fuel from turkeys: feathers, bones, fat, even whole turkey carcasses. Besides cooking oil and poultry, other candidates for recycling into biofuel include coconuts and cow dung. The process, after all, is not so different from the geological forces that pressured-cooked dead dinosaurs and such over millennia to produce the petroleum that we're now using up all too rapidly.
In the case of discarded cooking grease, it's even simpler. In fact, with some conversion, you can run your car on oil straight out of the McDonald's deep-fat fryer. (Of course, you'll want to filter out the little bits of potato and McChicken or Filet-O-Fish before putting the oil in your tank.) "It costs several hundred dollars to convert your vehicle, but then you don't have to mess with this—" Gibbons says, waving a hand at his barrels and tubing. "It's just personal preference. Some people are already doing it in town. You can drive up to any fast-food place and use the oil."
Jesse Seavers of Silver City, for example, recently embarked on converting a 1987 Mercedes "to run on straight veggie oil." He plans to document the process on videotape—titled "Green My Ride"—so other biofuels enthusiasts can see how he and his friends "transform this classic Mercedes into a lean, green stylin' machine."
Companies such as Greasecar (www.greasecar.com) in Massachusetts will do the whole car makeover for you at a price tag of about $1,500, or you can buy a do-it-yourself conversion kit for $795. Your car will still be able to burn conventional diesel fuel, as well as vegetable oil, after the switch. In cold weather—remember that whole congealing problem?—you'll need regular diesel to start the car; either the warming engine or an electric heater is also required to warm the vegetable oil to the point where it can be ignited. In places where the mercury dips below zero, you'll also have to wrap the fuel lines in heater hoses.
On the plus side, using vegetable oil directly pretty much guarantees that your vehicle will leave an enticing aroma in its wake. Don't be surprised if drivers behind you in traffic start salivating.
Converting your car to burn straight vegetable oil will void your warranty, though, and some car experts warn that the oil will eventually gum up your fuel pump and injectors. Raffaelo Garofalo, secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board, told the Wall Street Journal, "Those that are doing this are crazy people. If you're lucky, your car will run 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles)—and then die."
The US National Biodiesel Board (NBB), in fact, is emphatic that biodiesel is NOT the same thing as raw vegetable oil. It notes, "Biodiesel is produced from any fat or oil such as soybean oil, through a refinery process called transesterification."
Don't let that mouthful of a term scare you if you're not a professional chemist—neither is Gibbons. "I don't have a background in chemistry, but I do like fiddling with it," he says. That's one of the reasons he opted for the transesterification approach instead of converting his vehicle to run on straight restaurant oil.
Transesterification, as he explains it, starts by getting the oil into the dark blue barrel, where it's electrically heated to 100-120 degrees. Methanol and lye are mixed to create a caustic catalyst—"you don't want to breathe it or get it on your hands"—which goes into the oil. That causes the oil to separate into gloppy, thick glycerin (which can be recycled into soap) and a liquid ester. The whole concoction is then moved into the white settling tank with the funnel on the bottom, where the heavier glycerin settles out and gets drained away. The fuel is what's left.
The biodiesel fuel must be cleaned and purified before you can pump it into your car, so next it goes into one of two bubbler tanks. Water is added and air gets bubbled through the mix for a day, while the water gets changed several times. At first the water comes off almost milky, but by the end it's clear. Finally, the fuel goes into a tank aerator, which sprays the oil onto a metal screen to remove any residual water. After a total processing of three or four days, the fuel is ready to go through one last filter and into your engine. Once the whole system's up and running, Gibbons hopes the club can make two batches of biodiesel a week.
Here in the balmy Southwest, vehicles can use a 50-50 mix of biodiesel and regular diesel—called "B50"—in the wintertime. Elsewhere, as in Bonnie Raitt's tour bus, a B20 mix is typically used. (Pure biodiesel begins to get "slushy" at temperatures a little under the freezing mark, whereas B20 doesn't reach its "gel point" until 15 degrees below zero.) In the summer, Gibbons hopes to be able to run his pickup on nothing but biodiesel, "B100."
At least until the recent run-up in oil prices—the petroleum kind, not the French-frying kind of oil, that is—biofuels have been consistently more expensive than traditional gas or diesel. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, biofuels cost an average of 35 percent more per unit of energy released than fuels refined from crude petroleum. That's one reason why, the agency says, such fuels currently contribute only about one percent of the world's energy needs.
Some European countries subsidize biofuels in an effort to boost their energy independence, and the European Union (EU) has mandated sharply increased use of biofuels by 2020. Germany, which claims Rudolf Diesel as its own, exempts biodiesel from the energy taxes levied on diesel made from crude oil. In France, biodiesel is routinely mixed up to five percent with regular diesel in the fuel that truckers get at the pump.
It's not just cars and trucks that can benefit from biodiesel. Homes that heat with oil can burn a biodiesel blend, although some experts warn of long-term ill effects on furnaces.
But, unless you make your own like the Silver City club, just try finding biodiesel here in the US. In New Mexico, according to the NBB, only two companies distribute biodiesel—Ever-Ready Oil Co. in Albuquerque and Sun Biodiesel Distributors in Portales. The Albuquerque company and Amigo Mart/Baca Street Biofuels in Santa Fe are the only places where you can pull up and pump biodiesel at retail.
The biodiesel boom is coming, though, the NBB insists, pointing to figures that show total US production has zoomed from a paltry 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 75 million gallons last year. (Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the US uses about 925 million gallons of petroleum every single day.) According to the US Department of Energy, biodiesel is the fastest-growing alternative fuel.
There are already 45 active biodiesel plants, by the NBB's count, averaging 6.5 million gallons apiece per year. Larger plants—producing some 30 million gallons each—have begun to open, and 54 additional biodiesel plants are on the drawing boards.
Nationally, the NBB says there are more than 600 retail filling stations serving up biodiesel blends. More than 600 vehicle fleets have switched to biodiesel, including those of public school districts, utility companies, the city of Berkeley, Calif., and state and federal agencies such as the National Park Service. Vehicles in Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks all burn biodiesel.
Once you get over the cost hurdle, biodiesel does have some practical advantages. It's superior to conventional fuels in its lubricating qualities. Some studies have shown a 45 percent reduction in engine wear and tear when running on a biodiesel blend; Barry Hert, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, claims biodiesel contributes to a 10-fold reduction in engine wear.
There's an initial downside, however: "Biodiesel has a solvent effect that may release deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes from previous diesel fuel storage," warns the NBB. "The release of deposits may clog filters initially." Also, some vehicles built before 1993 have rubber hoses that can be eroded by biodiesel.
Besides being (generally) good for your car, biodiesel may also be a boon for the environment—at least compared to regular diesel. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health-effects testing requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. A 2005 report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that burning pure biodiesel instead of traditional diesel reduces particulates by 47 percent, unburned hydrocarbons by 67 percent and carbon-monoxide emissions by 48 percent. The only measure by which biodiesel is marginally "dirtier" is nitrogen-oxide emissions, releasing 5.8 percent more than regular diesel. An earlier study by the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 78 percent compared to regular diesel.
Biodiesel is better for people, too: The energy lab's report found that it mitigates the cancer risks of diesel exhaust by 94 percent.
Some environmentalists aren't convinced, however. Brendan Bell, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, told the online magazine Salon, "Our concerns with biodiesel are the same as our concerns with regular diesel. It's got a lot more pollutants in it than regular gasoline. It's not a fair tradeoff to sacrifice kids' health to fight global warming."
As that debate over global warming heats up, though, we might start taking a second look at McDonald's deep fryer for fuel. The BioDiesel Now (www.biodieselnow.com) Web site claims, "Biodiesel is nearly carbon-neutral, meaning it contributes almost zero emissions to global warming!" That National Renewable Energy Laboratory study did indeed find that biodiesel has a "closed carbon cycle," as the NBB puts it: "The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biodiesel is burned is recycled by growing plants, which are later processed into fuel."
If the plant oils are used to fry up some chicken nuggets or French fries before they wind up in our fuel tanks, so much the better—for the environment, if not for our waistlines.
But Tom Gibbons will be the first to admit that biodiesel is no magic bullet for the world's energy woes. "It's a transitional solution," he says. "We'll have to put it together with several other options. There's no one replacement for petroleum."
For starters, it's not entirely clear whether biodiesel—like many other alternative-fuel ideas, such as hydrogen—doesn't consume more energy to make than it yields. Gibbons says he has no way of measuring whether his club's contraption will actually come out ahead in energy expenditure. "All the solutions we talk about are energy deficits," he says. "I guess until cold fusion works, you're not gonna find an easy answer. Biodiesel is one piece of the puzzle, is how I see it. Plus I like the idea of being in the recycling loop. It's one way for local communities to meet some of their needs."
In terms of energy yield, the NBB says biodiesel actually does far better than the competition. According to the board, "Biodiesel has the highest energy balance of any liquid fuel, as for every unit of energy used to make biodiesel, 3.2 units are gained."
The equation gets dicier, however, once you start to run out of restaurant grease to recycle. George Monbiot, a British environmental writer, has calculated that there's only enough waste cooking oil in the United Kingdom to meet one-380th of that nation's demand for road-transport fuel.
So why not plant crops purely for harvesting and processing into biodiesel, much as Midwestern farmers plant corn for ethanol? Of course, that requires more energy upfront for tractor fuel and fertilizer. While the energy economics of growing, say, soybeans for biodiesel have yet to be extensively studied, the similar questions regarding corn production for ethanol are the subject of fierce debate. Studies by the US Department of Agriculture have estimated that for every BTU used to produce and process ethanol, you get between 1.17 and 1.35 BTUs of fuel. The Energy Justice Network (www.energyjustice.net), however, cites studies at Berkeley and Cornell that demonstrated "energy outputs from ethanol produced using corn, switchgrass and wood biomass were each less than the respective fossil energy inputs"—that is, it costs more energy to make ethanol than you get.
There's also the question of simply finding enough arable land to grow crops to turn into biofuels. In tiny Great Britain, this equation is clearly a loser, according to the Guardian newspaper there: "To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the UK. Even the EU's more modest target of 20 percent by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland." A similar analysis by Wired magazine concludes that the soybean acreage required for biodiesel to replace the US' annual gasoline consumption is many, many times the total arable land in the entire country. Genetic engineering to boost vegetable-oil output might help close that gap, the magazine concedes, but adds, "Regardless, even cost-effective biodiesel wouldn't address the moral issue: burning food while billions of people worldwide go hungry."
The consequences of planting crops such as palms for biodiesel in other countries could be even more dire, warns Monbiot (who first notes, "Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing."). Palm-oil plantations were responsible for 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000, according to a report by Friends of the Earth. Millions of acres more of forest in Sumatra, Borneo and Indonesia are being ripped out and burned to make room for palm-oil seedlings. Monbiot charges, "In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria." Aside from recycling restaurant oil, he concludes, "Biodiesel is more carbon-intensive than fossil fuel."
One alternative crop that might prove more earth-friendly is, of all things, algae. You can grow it in waste water, then simply squeeze the algae to extract, well, algae oil. McDonald's might not want to cook in algae oil, but you can still use it to make biodiesel. According to a 328-page report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24190.pdf), from 1978 to 1996, the US Department of Energy's Office of Fuels Development funded a program to develop renewable transportation fuels from algae. "The main focus of the program, known as the Aquatic Species Program (or ASP) was the production of biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds, utilizing waste carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Over the almost two decades of this program, tremendous advances were made in the science of manipulating the metabolism of algae and the engineering of microalgae algae production systems."
The program found that growing algae for biodiesel avoids many of the resource issues that make other crops-for-fuel ideas ultimately unattractive. (Algae also mostly skirts the moral question of "burning food for fuel.") According to the summary report, "Microalgae systems use far less water than traditional oilseed crops. Land is hardly a limitation. Two hundred thousand hectares (less than 0.1% of climatically suitable land areas in the US) could produce one quad [1 quadrillion BTUs] of fuel." For the non-petroleum chemists out there, 1 quadrillion BTUs of fuel is roughly equal to the energy in 8 million gallons of gasoline.
"Thus, though the technology faces many R&D hurdles before it can be practicable, it is clear that resource limitations are not an argument against the technology," the report concluded. The problem, rather, is cost: "Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs." Of course, that was in 1998—diesel costs have shot up since then, and may increase enough in the not-so-distant future that algae farms for fuel may look like an idea whose time has come.
The Silver City biodiesel club isn't waiting. "Once we get this—" Gibbons indicates the barrels and tanks for turning restaurant grease into fuel. "—stabilized, then we want to step back and investigate other possibilities. We have one member who's very interested in the algae angle. We hope to work out something with the Bayard waste treatment plant. Algae has a lot of oil per volume of plant; it happens very naturally."
After you press the oil out of the algae, he adds, you're left with an "algae cake" that can be used as livestock food.
Even emptying the nation's deep fryers and covering the landscape with algae may barely make a dent in America's insatiable thirst for fuel, however. Most experts agree we'll still have to change our gas-guzzling ways.
David J. Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently told the New York Times, "From what I've seen of the studies out there, waste oils could only generate a billion gallons a year, which is three percent of our current diesel use. And with plant-based fuels like soybeans, you're competing with food crops. Everybody's looking for a silver bullet, but I think it's overly optimistic to expect that we can replace even 10 percent of our fossil-fuel needs with biodiesel."
A National Biodiesel Board spokesperson allows, "A realistic goal for the industry would be to provide 10 percent of the diesel market in 10 years."
But Bell of the Sierra Club believes our energies would be better spent, so to speak, increasing overall fuel-economy standards (the so-called CAFE standards, short for Corporate Average Fuel Economy) and switching to hybrid cars. Besides, he argues, fewer passenger cars in the US run on diesel than in Europe.
Brent Baker, a New York carpenter who traveled cross-country in a biodiesel-powered school bus donated by Greenpeace in 2003, replied to this argument in Salon: "With all due respect to the Sierra Club, they've spent 20 years working on CAFE. . . and fuel economy is worse than ever."
Tom Gibbons isn't troubled by these big-picture arguments. That's the macro level, after all, over which individuals and communities can exert very little control. What we can do something about is the micro level, building more sustainable communities right where we live.
"I'm excited about the idea of local people taking charge of their lives, doing things that are sustainable and renewable," he says. Eventually he'd like to see a central collection system for all of Silver City's used restaurant oil, whether it winds up going straight into converted cars or being processed first.
"Who knows? The possibilities are endless, really. There are already large plants elsewhere in the country producing up to 30 million gallons a year." Gibbons gently closes the door on the club's closet-sized biodiesel "plant" and steps out into the wintry chill. "It's limited only by the number of people involved and by our imaginations."
That faint aroma of French fries that you smell? It just could be the sweet smell of the future.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure