The Crestone Eagle, February 2003:

The fat of the nation becomes our biodiesel
by Nick Chambers

The scale of our global civilization is at a point we have never seen. Our entire transportation industry, which brings our rations of food to sustain us as living beings, is built upon fossil fuels that are drilled, refined, and shipped from the other side of the Earth. In our efforts to learn, once again, how to truly sustain ourselves, it is worthwhile to look at the paradigm we've been bred into, examine available resources, whether conventional or not, then decipher what we can do about it as individuals, a community, and a bioregion. There exists a kind of power which can run our vehicles, generate electricity, and light our lanterns (for those of us who still use them): plant power from vegetable oil and the product called Biodiesel.

The black gunk from afar
As with many other natural resources and incomparable works of nature, humans will use up all of Earth's fossil fuels, which were created over hundreds of millions of years, in just 200 years. If we continue at our current rate of extracting 25 billion barrels of oil yearly, we will exhaust all the oil reserves of the world by 2040; however, our rate is increasing 2% every year!

The next 30 years will be accompanied by more militancy in the Middle East (wherein lie 30% of the remaining oil reserves), huge price shocks to belittle those of the 1970's, and skewed economics where billions of tax dollars will be sent overseas to try to secure this resource.

The ecological problem with this industrial / petroleum paradigm, aside from the above mentioned, is that we are releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide (along with a host of other emissions) into the atmosphere. Nature had sequestered this CO2 deep in the Earth in ancient plant bogs and swamps. At the time that these were forming, the Earth would have been inhospitable to humans due to very high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Plants, in their miraculous silence, absorbed this CO2 and released oxygen as a by-product. This produced atmospheric conditions that allowed creatures like us to start evolving about 4 million years ago. Essentially, the situation is this: plants enabled our existence and now we are using the essence of their corpses to fuel our "needs”. Thus, we are releasing the CO2 they stored away, contributing to the greenhouse effect and overall making atmospheric CO2 levels higher than they have been in 160,000 years.

Enter vegetable oil
Rudolph Diesel invented his diesel engine in 1895 as an improvement on the inefficient gasoline engines of his day. He envisioned this engine fueled from the products of the farm it worked on: vegetable oil from crops that could be grown every year. His prototype ran on straight peanut oil. He was one of those scientists like Nikoli Tesla that went against the designers' plans of the Industrial Revolution and promoted energy and/or technology that could be free, abundant, and accessible to all. His body was found mysteriously adrift in the English Channel in 1913.

Since Rudolph Diesel never saw his vision achieved, the petroleum industry capitalized on his engine (based on compression ignition) to run on a low grade petroleum product: modern day diesel fuel. This involved changing the injection system, which could no longer tolerate the viscosity of vegetable oil.

It wasn't until the 1970's that scientists discovered a simple chemical reaction that could render vegetable oil less viscous and nearly equivalent to the petroleum diesel, and thus compatible with the huge diesel engine presence in the world's internal combustion engine fleet. This new product was termed Biodiesel.

Biodiesel facts
Biodiesel can be made from new vegetable oil of any kind or used oil from restaurant fryers. It is more lubricating to an engine than petro-diesel and drastically reduces emissions, including the particulated, black soot commonly identified with older diesels. It can be blended with petro-diesel in any amount, and even a 20% biodiesel blend, called B-20, still carries the above characteristics, including the rather sweet french-frying exhaust smell.

Biodiesel is non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, doesn’t irritated eyes or skin and biodegrades rapidly. It has a flash point of more than twice that of petro-diesel, and is not even listed as a hazardous material by organizations like OSHA. Biodiesel can be used in diesel or kerosene heaters, lanterns, and stoves and is also an excellent cleaning solvent. It also obviously has great potential in diesel-powered generators for electrical generation. It can be used to fire pottery kilns, and studies have shown it can be used to clean up petroleum oil spills on land or in water. Finally, it can be used as a crop amendment.

Biodiesel has been researched in numerous countries around the world, and in 2000 there were 85 production operations, including 7 plants in the United States. Not surprisingly, Europe leads the world in biodiesel production. New biodiesel producers are popping up all over the U.S. as small businesses selling fuel for on- and off-road use, and probably hundreds of garage hobbyists are just produc ing for their own use.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, U.S. production of biodiesel should grow to about 40 million gallons in 2003, a 200% increase from 2002. The town of Breckenridge and the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area are testing the fuel, and their ski areas are already using B-20 for their snow cats and ski lifts. The Commissioners of Summit County are also looking at the fuel for powering their 28 off-road vehicles and 57 on-road vehicles, including Summit Stage buses, ambulances, front-end loaders, bulldozers, road and bridge department plows, and three stationary generators.

Mallete Oil Company (719-486-0577) in Leadville has been supplying the ski areas with their B-20, which was composed from soybean biodiesel from a producer in Iowa. They are selling for on-road use and coming in at $1.77 per gallon with about $0.65 of that being tax. We, in the Crestone/Baca area, with the partnership of Andy Pierce and others, are hoping to have locally-made biodiesel from used vegetable oil for sale for off-road use by the summer of 2003. Stay tuned!

The ingredients
The substances required to make biodiesel, in addition to the oil, are an alcohol (like methanol or ethanol) and lye (sodium hydroxide) in proportions to the oil of 20-30% and .35-.75%, respectively. Methanol is an alcohol made from coal, natural gas, or wood. Ethanol is always made from a renewable source like grains, sometimes called grain alcohol.

When we combine the above ingredients in the right proportion, we have a chemical reaction which leaves us with biodiesel (alkyl esters) and vegetable glycerine. The glycerine is what makes vegetable oil thick and goopy. Fortunately, for us, since we're trying to utilize as many closed-loop systems as possible for a sustainable future, the glycerine is a good degreasing soap right from the reaction. It can further be cleaned and filtered and used for anything you might use otherwise expensive glycerine for: tinctures, toothpaste, shampoo, and many different kinds of soaps.

The future of vegetable oil and biodiesel
There is certainly more research and development to be done to produce our own locally made alcohol and lye. Alcohol should be no problem, since we already have an abundance of wood and wood chips. Ben Brack is currently working on a grant to promote the use of forest products for purposes such as this.

Coming from the old-fashioned soap making and hide tanning perspective, we can interchangeably use commercial lye or the time-tested basic solution of potash (from wood ashes). Since all we really need is a strong base, we may be able to substitute locally produced potash for the commercial lye. Plus, we want to find a use for every waste product in any given system, and what do we currently do with wood ashes?

Up until now, I have not mentioned anything about straight vegetable oil, since engine manufacturers have changed the injection systems away from Rudolph Diesel's original design. We can still power diesel engines on straight oil—we just need to heat it to lower its viscosity. The current design, executed locally by Evan Fleischer on a VW Rabbit, John Dolde on a Ford F-250, and myself on a F-250, is to use the engine's coolant to heat the vegetable oil tank, fuel line, and filter before it goes to the injection pump.

Running engines on straight oil has a lot of potential, since the only input needed to make it a fuel is to heat and filter it. Used oil is currently a free waste product, hauled away from your favorite restaurant alleyway be composted, made into animal feed, or cosmetics. With attention to detail, straight oil may have a future, utilizing hot water solar collectors, DC powered heater elements, and, of course, hot coolant as its heat source. More research to come!

There is one caveat to any of this sort of fuel utilization, about which, being a sort of ecologist-farmer, I feel very strongly. We should not look to growing oil crops for their oil-fuel value. Like Napoleon referring to the monstrous population of China: "God help us if we wake the sleeping giant!"—if the present petroleum/ government institutions (or Monsanto and the likes) suddenly realized the potential in replacing the dwindling oil reserves with growing oil crops, we would see a billion-acred, genetically-modified mono-crop nightmare like we've never seen before.

Be wary! Algae production may be one resource for growing an oil crop because of remarkably high yields—2,007 gallons per year in ponds of 1000 square meters (compared to the high yielding oil crop of canola or rapeseed at 50 gallons in the same space), and we can raise fish in the same ponds.

Used vegetable oil is a waste product, and, at the tune of 3.5 billion gallons every year in the U.S., we should take advantage of this resource. No, used oil could never replace the 275 billion gallons of current petro-diesel use, but while the rest of the nation is consumed with an imminent war, let's use what's falling through the cracks of their system.

We're talking about a fuel that can serve as a stepping stone out of the current, dominant paradigm. And let's be honest with ourselves about what we really need and what is socially-bred habit and convenience. There are, however, other alternatives to look forward to: locally made alcohol could power modified gasoline engines with five-fold increases in efficiency; fuel cells and electric vehicles are on the horizon; and, well, we’re gett'n a horse!

Most of the information and data in this report is from the indispensible resource: From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank by Joshua Tickell, available for $24.95 from Book Masters, PO Box 388, Ashland, OH 44805, 1-800-266-5564.

If you are interested in purchasing locally-made biodiesel this summer, or if you are interested in the process of making it, there are signup sheets and production prospectus descriptions at Curt's and Crestone Mart. Or, you can call me at 719-580-5213. Even if you don't have a diesel vehicle but may in the future, we want to hear from you. Thank you!

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