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Home-Brew Biodiesel

Why Buy Fuel, When You Can Make Your Own?

Steve Temple
Feb 28, 2006
Photographers: Steve Temple
Photo 2/6   |   The Fuel Meister consists of a couple of plastic tanks with pumps, hoses, valves, and filters, along with a weight scale and testing equipment. Socal Alternative Fuels, a Fuel Meister dealer, is in the process of developing a similar product called the Biodiesel Xtractor, which will have some additional features. The Fuel Meister system sells for $3,000, and Socal Alternative Fuels' new Biodiesel Xtractor will be priced somewhat less. So, do the math: If you can produce your own fuel for less than $1 per gallon, this machinery could easily pay for itself in a matter of months, depending on how many diesel engines you operate.
A solution to many of our fuel problems just might be cleverly hidden in plain view. While drivers of gas-guzzlers worry about the volatile price of petroleum and Middle East politics, diesel owners have a practical alternative: biodiesel. Derived from just about any type of vegetable oil, it can be made in less than an hour by mixing together a couple of common chemicals. The result is a much cheaper and cleaner-burning fuel that requires no engine modifications, nor a separate fueling system, and disposes of a common waste product: fryer oil. (Note that biodiesel is not the same as using straight vegetable oil in a secondary fuel system, which we featured in our previous issue.)
The concept of making biodiesel in your garage is so simple, and so powerful, it could mean a radical shift in the popularity of diesel engines. Not only that, it might have far-reaching consequences for our political and economic landscape. Imagine the impact of a significant reduction in the need for imported crude oil (or even large oil refineries) and the corresponding increase in the use of a domestic agricultural product. Currently, only around three percent of U.S. vehicles run on diesel (while in Europe, it's 50 percent or more). Can you imagine if home-brewed diesel fuel was being produced throughout the country for less than a $1 a gallon? Consumers would be clamoring for the stuff, if not the machinery to make it. Indications are that a groundswell is forming, with a number of biodiesel systems and suppliers cropping up all over the country. One company, Fuel Meister, is already selling about 450 biodiesel processors per month.
This scenario of home-brewed fuel is neither wishful thinking nor the scheme of some crackpot inventor. It's based on the simple economics of a proven process that's been around for decades. Waste vegetable oil is available free from restaurants, although that may eventually change if biodiesel catches on. The chemicals required to convert vegetable oil to diesel (a process called transesterification-basically the removal of glycerin) are methanol and lye are inexpensive and readily available. According to Todd Smith of Socal Alternative Fuel, the cost per gallon to produce your own biodiesel is roughly 40 to 70 cents a gallon.
What About Emissions?
Biodiesel researchers state that the exhaust contains no sulfur emissions. Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions are cut by 20 to 60 percent, and soot particulates are reduced by 40 to 60 percent. In addition, a '98 biodiesel lifecycle study, jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, concluded that biodiesel reduces net CO2 emissions by 78 percent compared to petroleum diesel. This happens because of biodiesel's closed carbon cycle. The CO2 released into the atmosphere when biodiesel is burned is recycled by growing plants, which are later processed into fuel. In other words, biodiesel releases no more carbon dioxide than the trees originally consumed.
Biodiesel Use Restrictions
Since vegetable diesel readily mixes with petroleum-based diesel, fuels containing 5 percent or more biodiesel are already available at some truck stops (notably, one is owned by Willie Nelson, referred to as Biowillie). So biodiesel can be used to stretch your existing source of diesel fuel. What about higher concentrations of biodiesel? B10 and B20 are already in use in some areas, and the National Biodiesel Board (www.biodiesel.org) says the 20 percent level appears to be an ideal ratio from the standpoint of emissions and performance. But, what about higher concentrations of biodiesel? In August, 2004, the California Division of Measurement Standards prohibited the sale of fuel containing more than 20 percent biodiesel to the public.
Real-World Running on Biodiesel
Since we are neither buying nor selling biodiesel, the above legal restrictions don't apply to us, so we decided to do a bit of experimenting using our own vehicle, a '96 Dodge dualie powered by a 12-valve Cummins. At our first fill-up, we started with a 50/50 mix of biodiesel and petroleum diesel. For about the first few miles, we didn't notice any difference at all. The engine started and cruised just as if we had filled up at a regular fuel station. Then, something really pleasant started happening: The sweet smell of cooking oil began to emanate from the exhaust. No soot, no stink, just a mild aroma, faintly reminiscent of Asian food.
As for the noise pollution, Todd Smith of Socal Alternative Fuels has been running his Duramax-powered Chevy Silverado on straight biodiesel for several months, and we were frankly surprised by how quiet his engine sounds. But, on our Dodge Ram, the muffler had been removed by the previous owner, so that may be why we didn't notice any immediate change in engine noise, nor did we see any significant change in our fuel mileage.
After consuming this sample, we had to run a couple tanks of conventional diesel on a long road trip before we could fill up again on biodiesel. We encountered no difficulty switching back to pure petroleum fuel, but we were surprised that the scent of vegetable oil continued to linger for another tank or two. The next time we showed up at Socal Alternative Fuel with a nearly empty tank, so we were running on nearly 100 percent biodiesel-again, no problems and similar mileage results. This time, however, the engine noise seemed to be muffled slightly. A friend of ours with an '82 Chevy powered by a 6.2L GM diesel ran on straight biodiesel as well, and only noticed some slight surging and slow startup, but otherwise no difficulties.
We should emphasize that these were short-term tests, and we can't comment on the long-term effects. Smith has been running his Silverado for several months now and reports no problems at all. With biodiesel's inherently higher lubricity, compared with conventional diesel, there are both pros and cons. The fuel pump and engine get more lubrication, but biodiesel is a solvent and tends to loosen accumulated sludge, which might clog the filter and require replacement after running a tank or two. Also, as with any chemical, biodiesel may damage painted surfaces, so spills require immediate cleaning. In addition, most pre-'94 vehicles and a few late-model cars may have rubber fuel lines and/or rubber seals in the fuel system. Biodiesel will gradually swell the rubber and degrade it. It's a good idea to check under your hood periodically and replace fuel lines and seals with a biodiesel-resistant synthetic, such as Viton, if they begin to degrade.
Cold Weather Use
For those who drive in a colder climate, biodiesel gels at around 32 degrees F or higher, depending on what kind of oils and fats it was made from. If you try to start your car at 10 degrees F, the biodiesel will probably be frozen in your fuel lines and the engine will not start. If you live in a colder climate, you may need to run a blend of biodiesel and diesel in your vehicle or modify your vehicle to heat your fuel system. Even with these drawbacks, the question arises that if the average Joe can make biodiesel at home, why aren't more fuel refiners doing so on a mass scale? It's certainly not a big technical hurdle, and we're already seeing a number of companies producing biodiesel. Interestingly, the feedstock vegetable oil could also be obtained from algae, jatropha, or jojoba beans, or other sources of non-edible vegetable oil that can be grown in, and harvested from, areas that don't normally produce food-grade agricultural products. We've also heard of new research that says it's possible to make biodiesel from chicken or turkey fat.
Whatever the source of the biodiesel, can you imagine how valuable a non-toxic, renewable fuel would be? The benefits are obvious: reducing our country's dependence on foreign oil, recycling waste products, lowering pollution levels, and even saving money for the consumer. The potential impact is mind-boggling. Forget about expensive, complicated fuel cells, electric cars, and hybrid powertrains. The solution is right under our nose, and it smells like cooking oil.
Photo 6/6   |   Chevrolet Silverado Rear Passengers Side View
What Are the drawbacks?
Well, you need to locate a dependable supply of used fryer oil and be willing to siphon it into a portable tank, then transport and store it in a dedicated workspace (about half the size of a single-car garage). More importantly, you'll need to exercise some safety precautions (while wearing gloves, goggles, and apron) in working with the methanol and lye, because they become toxic when mixed together. And you'll also need to dispose of the glycerin byproduct. Even for those who view themselves chemically challenged and would rather purchase biodiesel from a supplier, this alternative fuel still makes a lot of sense, and it has been thoroughly tested and proven on the road.

Sources

National Biodiesel Board
Washignton, DC 20004
202-737-8801
www.biodiesel.org

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