Monday, May 12, 2003

Fill 'er Up -- From the Dumpster Behind the Restaurant

Biodiesel, made from plant oil or animal fat, is fueling vehicles and an environmental crusade

John M. Glionna and Eric Bailey. Los Angeles Times. May 12, 2003

When Elie Rothchild's 1984 diesel Volkswagen is running on empty, he skips the corner gas station and heads straight for his favorite greasy spoon.

Donning a pair of surgical gloves, he pumps a few gallons of congealed vegetable lard out of the kitchen fryers. With a bit of chemical hocus-pocus back in his garage, he creates a newfangled fuel.

Rothchild motors on the front lines of the biodiesel crusade, a brew-your-own fuel movement that advocates say can, in a small but politically correct way, help slake America's thirst for Middle East crude.

The biodiesel brigade has some advice for drivers of those gas- guzzling SUVs they brand unwitting supporters of terrorist regimes: Wake up and smell the french fry grease. Because if oil means war, their thinking goes, then biodiesel means peace.

Experts disagree over biodiesel's role in the nation's energy future. While some say home-brew purists are visionaries, others dismiss them as fringe-dwelling dreamers. Daniel Becker, the Sierra Club's global warming and energy director, advocates boosting fuel economy rather than turning to alternatives like biodiesel: "I don't think it's a solution for the whole of America."

Fewer than 1% of all cars in the U.S. run on diesel fuel. Still, a few true believers hope for a groundswell of consumers quitting their petroleum habit and embracing biodiesel -- even if it means brewing made-in-America fuel one gallon at a time. Biodiesel production in the U.S. is already way up, with commercial sales jumping from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 15 million last year.

Biodiesel can be concocted from just about any plant oil and animal fat -- from soybeans to mustard seeds and industrial kitchen grease.

"It's so incredibly easy to make this stuff, it's frightening," says Rothchild, who runs an upstart biodiesel fuel company. "On top of that, it's the right thing to do."

Scattered programs nationwide run garbage trucks and bus fleets on fuels such as B20, a 20% mixture of biodiesel and conventional diesel. But for the true believers, the only grade that packs a political punch is B100; that's 100% biodiesel.

The renewable fuel emits roughly half the "greenhouse" pollutants of regular diesel and is 94% less likely to cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Rothchild boasts that it's as biodegradable as table sugar.

These days, biodiesel veers toward the chic. Actor Woody Harrelson drives on the fuel, and Julia Butterfly Hill, the celebrated tree sitter of California's north coast, is a promoter. The folk duo Indigo Girls are using biodiesel to fuel their current national tour. In Maui, there's a biodiesel rental car for tourists who want to make a statement.

Melissa Crabtree, a 34-year-old folk singer and river guide, was about to head out on a national tour when she made the switch. Crabtree joined some friends to buy a 1984 Ford Econoline van in Reno, converting the old rig's engine to run on vegetable oil. (Though biodiesel works splendidly in a standard diesel engine, advocates say, pure vegetable oil requires engine modifications.)

The Veggie Van was born.

For the next few months, Crabtree buzzed around America, the van's tank topped each evening with cooking oils scrounged from fast- food joints and lunch-counter diners at each stop. Filtering the swill before siphoning it into the van, Crabtree recalled being "covered in vegetable oil most of the time."

She turned to petroleum only once, after a french fry wedged in her fuel line. Mostly, the Veggie Van ran like a dream. At each gig, Crabtree talked it up, prodding audiences to kick their foreign oil addiction and belting out a song she wrote about the van.

Back in Berkeley recently, Crabtree met with other biodiesel advocates to demonstrate the ease of brewing your own.

First came acquisition of the raw ingredients. Maria Alovert, an East Bay free spirit whose dark hair is dyed with streaks of red and yellow, hefted a one-gallon plastic milk jug to scoop gobs of grease from a trash bin in back of Spenger's Fish Grotto near the briny east shore of San Francisco Bay.

Alovert, who teaches courses on concocting biodiesel, brews her fuel in a greasy 30-gallon drum. The process is relatively simple, though a bit of caution and a good biodiesel cookbook are advised. Fryer oils and grease get dumped into the vat and warmed with an electrical coil from an old hot water heater. Next, a mix of methanol and lye are added. The broth is stirred, then left to sit overnight. Glycerin produced by the process is drained off for use as soap. What's left is ready for the tank.

Typically, 1 1/2 gallons of restaurant grease yield about a gallon of biofuel. Advocates say the home brew costs up to a dollar per gallon to make. Mass-marketed biodiesel runs quite a bit higher - - about 50 cents a gallon more than regular diesel fuel.

"If you make your own, it's extremely cheap," Alovert said.

Activists crowd the spotlight, but there's a buttoned-down industry behind them.

So far, about 20 companies have popped up nationwide. The industry has its own trade association, the National Biodiesel Board, funded largely by soybean farmers who stand to gain if biodiesel booms. That Midwest agricultural connection has helped gain Washington's ear: Congress is considering new tax subsidies for the fuel.

Biodiesel executives certainly don't disagree with activists about the fuel's benefits to the environment and energy independence. But some wince over the counterculture embrace, worrying that their budding industry won't be taken seriously.

The industry has already carved a mainstream niche, supplying about 300 government fleets, harbors and even a smattering of military vehicles. In Bakersfield, what activists are heralding as the nation's largest biodiesel plant is also in the works. Garbage trucks in San Jose and Berkeley run on it.

Dave Williamson, recycling manager at Berkeley's Ecology Center, said his beefy rigs perform well on 100% biodiesel. Though studies have shown that the alternative fuel produces about 12% less energy than traditional diesel, Williamson said he's seen virtually no loss of power as the trucks climb the city's steep eastern hills.

Biodiesel advocates also boast about its superior lubricity, saying the fuel cuts down on engine wear and maintenance. (One consumer warning: The rubber hoses on some autos and pickups built before 1993 can be eroded by the fuel.)

Scientists call biodiesel an alternative for those who see their cars as a reflection of their political and environmental ethic. Said David Friedman, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists: "People are frustrated because they can't walk into a showroom and say, 'Give me a vehicle that can reduce our oil dependence.' In today's car buying market, the only choice is color and what kind of cup-holders there are."

Others say biodiesel is destined to stay a small fry.

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, says biodiesel will probably remain a boutique industry, undercut by its relatively high production cost.

"I've been there, done that," said Sperling, who fermented ethanol out of cannery wastes as a graduate student. "I sympathize with their idealistic notions."

Rothchild has bought the biodiesel concept pump, hose and nozzle. He recently saw a biodiesel demonstration and went right out and bought a diesel-powered vehicle. He converted it to run on pure vegetable oil as well as biodiesel fuel. Now, in a petrol pinch, he can hit an area supermarket for a plastic bottle of cooking oil to funnel right into his tank.

"When Dr. Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine, it ran on peanut oil, not the other stuff," he says.

Kenneth Kron, a biodiesel entrepreneur who makes about 50 gallons a week for a dozen customers, sees gold in restaurant grease. "In the future, they're going to call us lazy over the way we plundered the land for oil," Kron says.

Rothchild is walking down a busy sidewalk with his grease pump in hand. His eyes widen as he approaches a Mexican restaurant. Many ethnic eateries use animal lard, which he says is thicker and packs more wallop.

He walks right into the kitchen. The cook smiles and waves him into a back alley, where Rothchild spies two barrels left out in the rain. He lifts the top on one and takes a long, languid whiff, like a wine aficionado. He fires up the pump.

Inside the restaurant, manager Otto Laksmono can only shake his head at the idea that his kitchen glop would one day power a few of America's vast armada of automobiles.

"I'm not a believer," he says, whispering like a conspirator. "The fad won't last. But for now, I'm getting my grease hauled away."