It couldn't quite be called a trend yet, but at least two local residents are combating global warming, Islamic terrorism and air pollution by powering their cars on homemade alternative fuels.
Wood River High School biology teacher Larry Barnes mixes up biodiesel, which is an altered form of a vegetable oil and can be used in any vehicle that runs on diesel fuel. Josh Solly, the co-owner of a log home restoration business, uses straight vegetable oil, which only needs to be filtered before being poured into the tank, but has required some modification to his vehicle.
In both cases, the home entrepreneurs' raw material is used fryer oil from restaurants. It would otherwise be thrown away.
The biodiesel route:
Barnes produces the fuel for his 2004 Volkswagen Jetta wagon in his garage. With the help of a bit of alchemy, the car runs on used fryer oil from restaurants. When Barnes' car needs a fill-up—which, at 48 miles per gallon, isn't very often—he just reaches for the nozzle connected to a tank in the corner of the garage and watches his home brew flow through the hose.
Barnes has been mixing biodiesel for the past year and a half. He learned how to do it off the Internet and from a book called "Biodiesel Homebrew Guide," by Maria "Mark" Alovert.
"I'm still very experimental," he admitted.
Every couple of weeks, Barnes collects about five gallons of used canola oil from CK's Real Food restaurant in Hailey. If he were willing to use soy oil from fast-food restaurants, he could get a lot more, but he said the canola oil works better, and the fast-food places use their oil so long that it has too many impurities and has become too acidic. He said he used to get oil from the high school, but since the kitchen there became more health conscious, it doesn't use much.
Barnes bought the items for his lab—a hot-water heater, two 55-gallon drums, pipes and valves—off the Web from B100 Supply (www.b100supply.com). The entire lab cost about $500 and fits inside a closet along one wall of his garage.
To produce his fuel, he begins by filling a 50-gallon water tank with filtered canola oil, then flips a switch to add methanol (a form of alcohol) and potassium hydroxide. He allows the mixture to agitate for about three hours, so it mixes thoroughly. He then lets it sit for a few days, during which time the methanol breaks each oil molecule into biodiesel and glycerin. The glycerin, a waste product, sinks to the bottom and is drained off. Barnes rinses the biodiesel with water, which carries off impurities, and pumps the finished product into a 55-gallon tank.
Barnes estimates that each gallon of fuel costs about $1.30 to make. That sounds cheap compared to the current cost of the store-bought stuff, but Barnes admits that when his time is figured into the equation, he's not saving anything.
"It's probably like someone who brews their own beer," he said. "If they value their time at all, it's a waste of time. But it's fun. I get a kick out of it. My car's greener than a Prius (hybrid) when it's running on biodiesel."
Emitting an exhaust that smells like french fries cooking, biodiesel doesn't add any noxious fumes to the air, nor does it contribute to global warming, as fossil fuels do. When we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon dioxide that has been stored underground in petroleum for millions of years and put it into the atmosphere. When we burn biodiesel, we release carbon dioxide that had recently been taken out of the atmosphere by the plants that were harvested to produce the oil that is used to produce the biodiesel. That makes a closed loop.
The next step Barnes is working on is to recover and reuse the methanol, which is a fossil fuel. Right now, it's wasted. Once he adds a tube to his lab to recover it, he'll reduce the cost of his biodiesel to almost nothing and eliminate the consumption of fossil fuels in the production process.
Barnes freely admits that home-brewed biodiesel isn't for everybody. Beyond the time required to make it, there just isn't enough used fryer oil around to supply many people. But drivers of diesel vehicles can buy biodiesel, made from soybeans, on the retail market.
According to the National Biodiesel Board, an industry group, biodiesel is sold at 1,000 pumping stations around the United States. Unfortunately, it's only available at one place in the Wood River Valley—United Diesel, at Fifth Avenue and Bullion Street in Hailey. Local United Oil Manager Carl Browning said he's been selling B100 (pure biodiesel) all summer, and will have B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel) for the winter. Pure biodiesel congeals in cold weather. Browning recommends that drivers call him to make an appointment for a fill-up, at 720-5120.
For more information on producing biodiesel at home, consult www.biodieselcommunity.org.
The vegetable oil route:
Solly drives a 1985 Chevrolet Suburban to his job sites. His business, Log Restoration Systems, restores log homes using natural, water-based products. About a year and a half ago, Solly decided he'd extend his environmentally friendly ethic to the Suburban as well. Following installation of an $800 kit from greasecar.com, his vehicle now runs on used vegetable oil.
The advantage of Solly's system is that he doesn't need to go through the brewing process that Barnes does. The disadvantage is that the engine can't be run on vegetable oil until the oil warms up. Solly's conversion kit includes a second tank that he has bolted into the interior of his Suburban. Once the car has been started on regular diesel and the engine reaches a temperature of 130 degrees, warming the vegetable oil, he flips a switch and the vegetable oil takes over. Before he shuts the engine off, he has to switch back to regular diesel so the car can start on it again.
The rest of the kit consists of a fuel filter, a heater for the vegetable oil, hoses and two pumps.
"I'm not a mechanic at all," he said. "I opened the box and looked at all those pieces and said, 'I have no idea how this is going to work.'"
However, in two days, he had all the pieces installed. After some help from Ketchum Automotive with the electrical part, the car was running on vegetable oil.
"I had no idea how simple this process really was," he said. "You're just rerouting the supply of fuel."
Solly gets his used vegetable oil from Rickshaw and Globus. He said those restaurants use a higher quality oil than most others. All he has to do is filter it and pour it into the tank.
"When you flip the switch, the car quiets down and stops shaking so much, and it smells like you're standing behind Rickshaw," he said.
Solly's next step is to install an electrical heater for the vegetable oil tank so the car can start on it and thereby be weaned of petrodiesel entirely.
Solly wonders why diesel vehicles aren't equipped with dual tanks right from the factory. According to Wikipedia, the United States produces more than 2.5 billion gallons of waste vegetable oil a year, most of it from big producers such as potato chip factories. If used in diesel vehicles, that would substitute for about 16 percent of the 40 billion gallons of petrodiesel that the U.S. Department of Energy reports is consumed for transportation every year.