Do-it-yourselfers turn diner grease into biodiesel fuel

Americans store their cars, tools, even fertilizer in garages. But a refinery?

In his two-car garage, Kevin Newman is pouring used French fry oil from local restaurants into a pair of General Electric household water heaters – his version of the giant petroleum cracking towers found at an oil company refinery. He deftly moves hoses around, scrubs the impurities from the oil, performs chemical tests, and, voilà, a week later, he is filling-up his pickup truck with biodiesel. He figures his home refinery saves him and his business, which has six trucks, about $1.75 a gallon.

"If you can bake a cake, you can make biodiesel," says Mr. Newman.

With diesel at $3 a gallon, 50 cents more than last year, ingenious Americans like Newman are turning their garages and basements into mini-refineries. Websites publish instructions, community colleges offer classes, and biodiesel adherents give tours touting the improvement in exhaust emissions. Country and Western star Willie Nelson has his own "fresh farm biodiesel." Companies casually sell the equipment to turn used cooking oil into diesel as if owning your own refinery is part of the American dream.

There is no question that commercial biodiesel production is booming. This year, production is expected to come in at 150 million gallons, up from 75 million gallons last year and 25 million gallons two years ago, according to the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo.

The number will continue to grow: In Washington State alone, two new plants are being built that will produce a total of 160 million gallons per year by 2008. But the production is still modest compared with total US consumption of 38 billion gallons of diesel per year.

"The goal we have as an industry is to achieve 1 billion gallons by 2015," says National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe. "When we made the projection it seemed aggressive, but it is becoming more reachable all the time."

Teaching others to make the switch

Although there is no data on the backyard production of biodiesel, anecdotal evidence indicates that production is blossoming, as well. In the Seattle area, Lyle Rudensey, aka "BioLyle," leads workshops for 25 to 30 people at a time.

"My intent is to help them get rid of their gas guzzler," says Mr. Rudensey, who produces 50 gallons of biodiesel for himself every other week. "It's kind of fun to turn people on to this."

In North Carolina, Piedmont Biofuels runs classes at a local community college, gives thousands of people Sunday tours of its research center in Pittsboro, and is designing larger turnkey systems for places such as the North Carolina Zoo.

Lyle Estill, the organization's vice president, says one indication of the growth of backyard production is the difficulty in finding used cooking oil. "Four years ago, the dumpsters were overflowing with vegetable oil and now it's gobbled up by people who are brewing it themselves."

Many biodiesel users are cooperatives. That's the case in Burlington, N.C., where "brew-master" Eric Henry of Burlington Biodiesel Co-op cooks up enough to supply each of the eleven members with 45 gallons a week. He estimates the direct costs at 80 cents a gallon, not including $5,000 in sunk costs, such as tanks, pumps, and valves.

"Not everyone does it to save money," says Mr. Henry. "Some do it for environmental reasons, some want to lessen the impact of foreign oil; I like it because we use a local resource."

Risks from dangerous chemicals

Although proponents of backyard biodiesel say it's easy to produce, Mr. Jobe warns that there are plenty of potential dangers, including the use of industrial chemicals and reactive compounds. One of those chemicals, methanol, ignites at a fairly low temperature and has harmful vapors. "There have been accidents in biodiesel, both by home brewers and in industrial settings," Jobe says.

Back in his garage, Newman says he has learned to be very careful, particularly when using caustic lye. He wears gloves, a vapor mask, and goes through a lot of rags as he cleans up.

Newman, who calls himself semi-retired from the dry-wall business, became interested in biodiesel at a demonstration at the Utah State Fair last year.

The fair coincided with his son "bugging" him about how expensive diesel fuel had become for the six trucks used by their company, Detail Builders, Inc.

Last October, Newman bought water heaters, large plastic tanks, and other equipment. Total cost? About $4,500.

He set up shop in his garage, in a space that used to be a pottery studio for his son. Today, three "upscale" restaurants supply him with used oil. "It used to cost $100 to fill up my pickup. Today it cost $10," he says.

As area newspapers have chronicled what he calls "Detail Oil Company," locals have asked how to build their own systems. Now, he charges for the lessons.

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