Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Biodiesel 2004 (A Slight Return)
Biodiesel, easily made from soybeans or anything else organic, could save the world.
Dec 09, 2004
By Stuart Thornton
In 1900, at the World Exhibition in Paris, a refrigerator engineer unveiled an invention. It was an internal combustion engine that he ran on peanut oil. The man was neither a scam artist looking to make a quick buck nor an out-of-touch idealist from a European commune, and the invention was not a creaky piece of whimsy. The refrigerator engineer was Adolf Diesel, and his engine was one of the major breakthroughs of the dawning industrial age.
Behind his big invention, Diesel had a humanitarian vision. The inventor hoped with his vegetable-powered engine that he could wrest control of the power industry, which was based on steam engines, away from a small number of companies, and put it in the hands of everyday folks like farmers and artisans.
For about 20 years, his plan worked, as vehicles ran on vegetable oil. Diesel was not the only inventor who thought biodiesel could run on biomass. Another inventor named Henry Ford designed his 1908 Model T to run on ethanol.
Then, in the 1920s, a cheap petroleum byproduct was discovered, and the diesel engine was modified so that it could run on this new fuel. Eventually, practically everyone switched over to this new “diesel” fuel that was being sold at gas stations all over the country.
Except for a brief resurgence during World War II, when both the Allies and the Germans ran some equipment on vegetable oils, the idea of running an engine on biomass had been abandoned. But over the past few years, there has been a tremendous renewal of interest in using vegetable oil as a fuel. Currently, all over the world, people are running their vehicles on biodiesel, which is processed vegetable oil.
The National Biodiesel Board, a non-profit trade organization for the biodiesel industry, says that biodiesel production and sales have doubled from 15 million gallons in 2002 to an estimated 30 millions gallons for 2004.
All across the nation, biodiesel use is gaining momentum. Up north, in the city of Berkeley, 192 government vehicles from construction equipment to emergency vehicles run on biodiesel. In Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Southern California, two vessels and the islands’ stationary power generators are fueled with biodiesel. The United States Postal Service has been using biodiesel in large urban areas like Miami, San Francisco and New York City.
At this year’s Farm Aid benefit concert for our nation’s farmers, Farm Aid President Willie Nelson and his buddy Neil Young touted the fact that they both use biodiesel in their tour buses.
Automobile manufacturers are also getting into the act. This year, a new Jeep Liberty, a diesel sport-utility vehicle, is coming off the assembly line with a blend of biodiesel known as B5—the number after the “B” refers to the percent of biodiesel mixed with regular diesel.
In Monterey County, several local businesses are running their equipment on biodiesel. These include Sanctuary Cruises, a Moss Landing-based whale-watching tour company, and Heller Estates, an organic winery in Cachagua.
Also, the Monterey Bay Aquarium powers two rigs on biodiesel. Charles Aslanian, director of facilities at the aquarium, says the popular tourist attraction has run a collecting vehicle and a general use truck on the fuel for a year and a half.
A number of Monterey residents purchase biodiesel in bulk from distributors—including Salinas’ Toro Petroleum and Santa Cruz’s ApolloPower—to store in their own holding tanks. Until a few months ago, that was the only real way, short of making the stuff, to rely on biodiesel.
But this past summer, a Monterey gas station started to carry the fuel, giving local diesel car drivers a convenient way to fill up their rides with biodiesel.
All biodiesel users share a common belief system: They believe that running their vehicles on biodiesel is better for the environment than burning fossil fuels. They believe that buying biodiesel supports our country’s farmers. They feel passionately that using biodiesel will help this country become less dependent on foreign oil sources. Basically, biodiesel users believe that by using the renewable energy source, they are actually making the world a better place.
And in three weeks, when the Biodiesel Tax Incentive, a bi-partisan bill championed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) kicks in on the first of the year, it will cause the price of biodiesel to drop to about the same price per gallon as regular diesel. The number of biodiesel users is anticipated to grow immensely.
A United States Department of Agriculture study says that the tax incentive will increase the demand for biodiesel fourfold overnight—from an estimated 30 million gallons in 2004 to at least 124 million gallons next year. In addition, the incentive is expected to create up to 50,000 jobs in the next decade.
Jenna Higgins, Director of Communications for the National Biodiesel Board, is certain that the tax incentive will stimulate a huge growth in the United States’ biodiesel consumption.
“Price has been one of the last barriers to biodiesel use,” she says. “And this is going to lower the price.”
Biodiesel made a splash in Monterey on June 18, when the Alliance gas station, located at 2109 North Fremont, started to sell the fuel from a pump that was formerly used for kerosene. Jon Bohlman, the operations manager for Toro Petroleum, the Salinas-based company that owns the gas station, says he first heard about biodiesel three years ago.
Realizing that kerosene was only selling during the winter months, and impressed that biodiesel is a renewable fuel, Bohlman decided to give the product a shot. “It was kind of a gamble to begin with,” he admits.
At first, the gamble looked like it was not going to pay off. Deanna Daff, manager of the Alliance station, remembers that there were no sales during their first day carrying biodiesel. By the second day, a couple from Big Sur filled their Volvo up with the fuel.
Now, with the word out, Bohlman says the gas station is selling about 1,000 gallons a month—up from 280 gallons sold in the first month. “That’s more than we ever did with kerosene,” Daff says.
One of Alliance’s customers is Big Sur’s Jeannie Ford. Until the station started to carry the fuel, Ford and a couple of her neighbors in Big Sur stored the fuel in a 55 gallon drum, which was filled by a delivery truck that drove down from Santa Cruz. She recalls that one time, after filling up their tank, the deliveryman licked a bit of spilt biodiesel from his hands—a possibly fatal maneuver for distributors of gasoline or regular diesel.
Ford wholeheartedly embraced the idea of running her vehicles—a Volkswagon Jetta and a Toyota Land Cruiser—on biodiesel. She says she likes the idea of buying a fuel that helps boost the sales of American farmers as opposed to supporting gigantic oil companies.
“It supports our national economy,” she says. “We are paying farmers not to plant. Let’s pay them to plant.”
Another reason Ford uses biodiesel is that it does not generate greenhouse gases like fossil fuels. “It does not in any way contribute to global warming,” she says.
(Since biodiesel is made from products like soybean plants, burning the fuel releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that would be released by the decomposing soybean crop. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels releases carbon that was previously buried underground.)
Ford is also pleased to help ease the United State’s reliance on foreign oil. “In our small way, we are not contributing to what’s going on in the Middle East,” she says.
CSUMB chemistry professor Swarup Wood, who also serves as academic advisor to the CSUMB Sustainable Energies Club, agrees that being less reliant on overseas oil could change the world in a positive way. “The oil economy is a very brutal economy,” he says. “A large amount of it is produced at the expense of human lives.”
Wood adds that a shift to biomass-derived fuels would also have effects on foreign policy. “If Iraq didn’t have oil, we wouldn’t be there,” he says.
Whatever the many political and social benefits that could be derived by switching to biodiesel, few people would do it if it weren’t so easy. But the fact is that the act of converting to biodiesel is no big deal.
Despite rumors that one must “convert” a diesel vehicle to run on biodiesel, all owners of a new diesel vehicle need to do is put it in their tank. On pre-1993 vehicles, Higgins says it is necessary to replace the rubber hoses and gaskets, which deteriorate faster when using biodiesel.
Greg Bean is a local mechanic who has discovered no problems with a handful of his customers’ vehicles that run on biodiesel. As a matter of fact, his daughter, Erin Morse, drives a biodiesel-powered 1985 Mercedes-Benz 300D. Morse says she and her dad “did a test out on my car.” According to Bean, biodiesel passed the test. “We tried to see what it would do to the existing hoses and filters and, basically, it didn’t do anything to them,” he says.
Not that there aren’t a few problems with biodiesel. Dave Williamson, a proponent of biodiesel and the operations manager of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, says there is a 5.6 percent increase in nitrogen oxides, a smog precursor, when burning biodiesel. Also, there has been talk of consumers buying “bad batches” of biodiesel. Williamson believes there is “no quality problem” if the fuel is purchased through reputable sources. “At this point, I believe all commercially sold biodiesel is a good batch,” he says.
One slight inconvenience is that biodiesel can act like a scouring agent that might cause a fuel filter to clog with debris after initial usage.
Biodiesel can gel at temperatures approaching freezing—a situation Monterey County residents will rarely have to worry about. Williamson believes this problem can also be easily remedied with the addition of a “pour-point suppressant,” an additive available at most truck stops.
Despite these minor difficulties, a handful of environmentally conscious local businesses are running their companies on biodiesel.
It’s a beautiful fall morning in the Moss Landing Harbor. Above the floating fishing boats and sailboats, masts and antennas dominate the landscape like a forest of saplings. In the placid harbor, the boats’ wavy reflections on the water look like the work of an Impressionist painter.
While a duck casually drifts by, Steph Dutton fires up the two 210-horsepower engines on his 45-foot long whale-watching boat, named Sanctuary. Instead of a noxious cloud of diesel smoke, the engine practically gives off no noticeable odor. On closer inspection, there is a very light, nutty hint of heated vegetable oil wafting through the air.
Dutton, the co-owner and captain of Sanctuary Cruises, has been running his tours on biodiesel since May 2002.
He says that despite the fact that filling his boats with biodiesel costs $2,500 more than filling up with regular diesel, the benefits of using the alternative fuel outweigh the costs of burning fossil fuels.
“Immediately, we noticed a couple of things,” he says. “One, our seasick rates dropped dramatically. Two, it struck a great chord with our passengers.”
But Dutton believes that the best reason for using biodiesel is a moral one. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s better for the environment. It’s better for our passengers. It’s better for us.”
In addition, Dutton says, a biodiesel fuel spill would be a lot less detrimental to the marine environment than a diesel slick. Higgins agrees. “When biodiesel spills, your biggest worry is slipping on it,” she says. “When it spills in the ocean, it’s just fish food.”
Up Carmel Valley Road and on up Cachagua Road, Heller Estates, a local certified organic winery, powers its two blue tractors on the renewable fuel.
Inside a barn, surrounded by rows and rows of rust-colored grapevines, winemaker Rich Tanguay explains why his business decided to embrace biodiesel. One reason—a reason he has in common with Dutton—is that he makes his living from the environment.
Tanguay explains that organic farmers who run tractors spewing diesel exhaust are still polluting the environment. In addition, Tanguay explains that getting behind a tractor is not too bad if it runs on biodiesel. “When I get a big whiff of it, I actually smile when I’m behind the tractor instead of having to gag,” he says.
After heading outside to show me the 500-gallon biodiesel holding tank—where Tanguay squirts a bit of the fuel on his hand and rubs it in like moisturizer—the winemaker points to an idea that could make Heller Estate even more of a green business: biodiesel can be made from the oil extracted from grape seeds.
The production of biodiesel is known as transesterification—a word that evokes images of a long, complicated, technical chemical reaction. But making the fuel is relatively simple. Producers mix vegetable oil with lye and methanol, stirring and heating the concoction. Glycerin separates out of the vegetable oil and settles. Above the glycerin is biodiesel, which most people rinse with water before putting in their tanks. (For more detailed instructions, go to www.journeytoforever.org).
“It does involve chemicals that have to be handled safely,” Wood admits.
When Wood heard about biodiesel from some of his students, he helped a group of students form the CSUMB Sustainable Energies Club, with the goal of building a biodiesel reactor on campus. The group has since produced five to six gallons in the school’s chemistry laboratory, but Wood still has not attained his dream.
“We ran into roadblocks with getting space on campus and stuff like that,” he says.
Local residents Kurt Buck and Rob Sherlock say they didn’t need much space to produce the fuel. Both MBARI employees, Buck and Sherlock started making their own batches of biodiesel in Buck’s backyard in Salinas in 2003. After purchasing a motor that heats the liquid while stirring it, the two acquired used vegetable oil from the Moss Landing restaurant, The Whole Enchilada, and started to make their own biodiesel in a five-gallon bucket.
This year, Buck and Sherlock decided to expand their production capacity by transforming a standard 40-gallon water heater, purchased at Sears, into a biodiesel processor.
Though the two have almost completed the processor, they have been a little less motivated due to the convenience of filling up with biodiesel at the Alliance Station. “It kind of put a damper on the urgency of making it myself,” Buck says.
Moss Landing resident Ray Kemp has started producing biodiesel on a larger scale than Buck and Sherlock. A couple of years ago, Kemp was preparing to join the Coast Guard as a surf rescue swimmer until he heard about biodiesel. “I did a sudden screeching right turn in my life,” he says. “My entire existence is devoted to biodiesel.”
Initially, Kemp produced the fuel in 10-gallon batches from waste vegetable oil donated by Sea Harvest Restaurant. In the beginning, Kemp’s biodiesel productions hit a few snags as his first five batches of biodiesel were ruined due to water in the oil. In addition, at one point, a reactor fitting gave way causing a biodiesel spill—not a big deal since the fuel biodegrades as fast as sugar.
But, despite the setbacks, Kemp believes even those with no scientific experience can produce their own biodiesel. “Making biodiesel is super easy,” he says. “It’s as easy as making dinner. Everybody can do it.”
Currently, Kemp is creating 200-gallon batches with a system that he is hoping to patent and sell. Instead of selling his biodiesel to the general public, Kemp has formed a co-op, named KF3 Biodiesel Productions. Recently, Kemp moved the operation, which he says produces about 1,800 gallons a week, to a carport tent in Santa Cruz.
In addition to producing biodiesel and possibly selling his systems, the entrepreneur hopes to start producing and selling soap made from glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production.
Kemp believes the production and use of biodiesel by cooperatives could have far-reaching effects on society. “It allows you to fully disenfranchise from established fuel production systems,” he says.
The petroleum age may be coming to an end, and biodiesel may be part of a new energy era.
Sheikh Zaki Yamani, former Oil Minister of Saudi Arabia, predicted in 2000 that petroleum use will soon plummet.
“Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil—and no buyers,” Yamani said. “Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the Oil Age will come to an end, not because we have a lack of oil.”
While local people like Ray Kemp are home brewing biodiesel to free themselves from supporting the oil industry, others are working on the bigger picture—researching ways for the nation to end its oil dependence.
When former President Bill Clinton spoke in Monterey last year as part of the Panetta Lecture Series, he spent a few minutes on the importance of restructuring the nation’s current energy policy. Clinton said that exploring other energy options besides oil would not only be good for the environment, but would also stimulate the economy.
“I’m just telling you,” he said. “We could literally—I’m not exaggerating—[create] hundreds of thousands of jobs within America within two to three years, millions over a decade, if we made a serious decision that we were going to maximize our energy potential and our clean energy production potential.”
In the recent presidential election, one of John Kerry’s most overlooked platforms concerned America becoming energy independent. According to his campaign Web site, the former presidential contender calls for the exploration of new energy sources and the development of technologies to win independence from Middle Eastern oil. During the campaign, he did more than talk about alternative energy: he ran one of his tour buses on a biodiesel/diesel mixture known as B20.
There is a new book out that outlines a specific plan of attack to end our country’s oil dependence. In Winning the Oil Endgame, Nathan Glasgow and his co-authors—including longtime alternative energy activist Amory Lovins—present a plan to free the nation from dependence on fossil fuels.
They prescribe a four-part program, including biofuels (in particular cellulose ethanol, but also biodiesel) along with oil efficiency, super-efficient vehicles and natural gas.
Glasgow says the biodiesel tax incentive bill could help the biofuels industry grow significantly.
“We see right now that Europe in 2003 created 17 times as much biodiesel as we did in the United States,” he says by phone from Los Angeles. “One of the reasons that they did this, is that they detaxed biofuels.”
With the probable surge in biodiesel use if the tax incentive passes, the nation will be moving closer towards a solution to its costly reliance on fossil fuels. Glasgow says he believes ending oil dependence will have immense benefits for our national economy.
“It’s important for a number of reasons, but the largest reason is that it will be cheaper to get off oil than it will be to use oil,” he says. “It will be a boom to the economy. We think there will be almost $70 billion a year net profit to our country getting off oil. We also think that we will be able to create a million new good jobs in the agriculture and transportation equipment industries.”
But until the nation reaches this point, Glasgow believes that consumers embracing biodiesel is a move in the right direction. “It would be a good step in terms of petroleum dependency,” he says, “if we can get our fuels from the Midwest as opposed to the Mid-East.”