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Crestone Eagle, February 2003:
The fat of the nation becomes our biodiesel
by Nick Chambers
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
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
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 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 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
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
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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