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Home arrow Blog arrow 1/22/07- FUELING A REVOLUTION

1/22/07- FUELING A REVOLUTION PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Cabanatuan, Chronicle Staff Writer   
Saturday, 24 February 2007
Biodiesel moves almost into mainstream in Bay Area

About a year ago, Paul McNees chose to change his life by changing his fuel.

He sold his Saturn sport utility vehicle and bought a diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz. A mechanic whipped it into running order and replaced the soft rubber fuel lines with something sturdier.

Then the El Sobrante teacher started burning biodiesel -- a fuel cooked up not from petroleum but from vegetable oil, often waste oil from restaurants or food processing plants.

"I just couldn't justify filling up that tank with gasoline anymore for a multitude of reasons,'' said McNees, 43, citing global warming and the war in Iraq. "This has been great. It's totally cleaned out the engine. It runs great, has a lot more power. It sort of smells like french fries -- it doesn't have that noxious diesel smell."

A small but growing number of Bay Area drivers like McNees are trading their gasoline-fueled autos for biodiesel-powered cars. How many is hard to tell. The biodiesel industry is nascent, largely unregulated and informally organized. But experts agree that biodiesel use is growing.

Nationally, biodiesel consumption is up sharply -- from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to more than 75 million gallons in 2005. In the Bay Area, the number of customers filling up at Berkeley's Biofuel Oasis -- one of the region's few public biodiesel stations -- has climbed from about 200 three years ago to about 1,800 today.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush have mentioned the fuel in their respective plans to cut greenhouse gases and reduce petroleum dependence. The University of California recently signed a landmark deal with oil giant BP to develop biofuels.

Much of biodiesel's appeal stems from the fuel's ability to perform as well as petroleum diesel while emitting fewer exhaust materials that cause smog, particulate pollution and global warming. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pure biodiesel emits 67 percent fewer unburned hydrocarbons, 48 percent less carbon monoxide and 47 percent fewer particulates but 10 percent more nitrogen oxides.

Yet, despite its benefits and growing popularity, biodiesel might not be the fuel of the future because, as demand grows, the amount of land needed to produce the oils could become untenable, experts say.

Biodiesel is created in a relatively simple process known as transesterification. Producers, including fuel companies or home brewers, start with clean or waste vegetable oil, then add methanol and a catalyst such as lye. A chemical reaction produces biodiesel and glycerine, which can be separated easily. The glycerine can be used in a variety of products, from soap to manufactured fireplace logs.

Biodiesel has been popular for years among farmers in the Midwest and in the South, where virgin soybean oil typically is used to produce the fuel. Yet its use in the West, until recently, was largely limited to hobbyists who brewed the fuel at home and people who prided themselves on not using oil.

The home brewers include people like Ben Jordan, who makes his own biodiesel and teaches an alternative fuels class at City College of San Francisco, in which students create a batch of biodiesel.

"It's very dangerous and potentially very problematic,'' he said. "You're dealing with methanol and lye, and when you mix it together, it is very explosive and toxic. It's not something to mess around with. However, if you know what you're doing, you can safely and easily make it in your own home.''

Home brewers deserve much of the credit for the percolating interest in biodiesel, said Anna Halpern-Lande of Tellurion Biodiesel, a San Francisco marketing and distribution firm.

"The hobbyists make up a very small portion of the market," she said, "but they play a critical role: They capture the public's attention.''

In the past couple of years, biodiesel and other so-called alternative fuels have moved out of garages and workshops and into the mainstream. On Wednesday, Safeway, which operates 300 fuel stations in the United States, opened a biodiesel test pump in West Seattle. The fuel also is becoming popular with celebrities: Country music legend Willie Nelson, for example, is a partner in BioWillie Diesel, which markets the natural fuel primarily to truck stops.

The change hasn't gone unnoticed by some of biodiesel's earlier adopters, such as Ahri Golden, 32, a public radio documentarian from Berkeley, who has burned biodiesel in her 1980 Mercedes for four years.

"It was kind of hippie-ish," Golden said as she filled up at Biofuel Oasis. "Now you see a lot more people with nicer cars and more money coming for the practicality and not just the ideology.''

Yet it isn't practical for everyone. New diesel cars aren't sold in California because of air-quality regulations, and buying an older diesel can be competitive, biodiesel users say. No significant modifications are required to use biodiesel, but because it is a solvent, soft rubber gas lines need to be replaced with stronger tubing.

Biodiesel stations also are still hard to find: There are just nine in the nine-county Bay Area, according to the National Biodiesel Board. The small-scale operations usually have limited business hours.

"You can't just run down to the gas station,'' said biodiesel user Jonathan Austin of Oakland. "You've got to plan ahead.''

Because fueling stations have limited hours, many biodiesel users fill their tanks, as well as one or more 5-gallon containers that can be stored in the trunk or stashed in the garage. Although the process of making it can be dangerous, the biodiesel itself is safe because it burns at a much higher temperature.

And while some users don't like to use petroleum diesel, the fuels can be mixed or used interchangeably. Many biodiesel users fill their tanks with blends -- B-20, a blend containing 20 percent biodiesel, is common.

Filling up with biodiesel can also be more costly depending on fuel prices and a vehicle's fuel efficiency, although many experts believe the price will drop as use of the fuel becomes more widespread. At Biofuel Oasis, the current supply of B-99 biodiesel, made from reclaimed soy oil from a potato chip factory, sells for $3.65 a gallon. Gasoline sells for around $2.79 a gallon nearby and petroleum diesel for about $3.01 a gallon. However, cars that run on diesel -- including biodiesel -- can get 40 to 50 miles per gallon.

Many biodiesel users say they care less about the cost and more about cutting America's dependence on oil and combatting climate change. Their bumper stickers reflect those opinions. "Biodiesel -- no war required,'' read one on a car waiting to fill up at Biodiesel Oasis. "This car powered by vegetable oil,'' read another.

Jennifer Radtke, one of the five women who own Biofuel Oasis, thinks growing concern about climate change and the diminishing oil supply is driving the popularity of alternative fuels.

"A lot of our customers switched to biodiesel because of the war,'' she said. "That's probably common in the Bay Area, but across the country, it's probably because of concern about climate change and renewable energy. And that it's so cool.''

Yet biodiesel faces serious obstacles before it can become the fuel of the future.

A current challenge is availability. Interest in biodiesel may be rising, but so far local production isn't. Just one firm manufactures biodiesel in the Bay Area, according to the National Biodiesel Board, but two Bay Area plants are under construction and are expected to be producing the fuel later this year.

Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah (Mendocino County) has produced biodiesel from waste vegetable oils for five years. The company only recently began making enough to supply Biofuel Oasis, in addition to three stations in Mendocino County.

Kumar Plocher, Yokayo's president and founder, said that although the process of making biodiesel is relatively simple, it can be difficult to efficiently and consistently produce high-quality fuel. Some firms, he said, have invested in top-of-the-line equipment and hired petroleum and chemical industry experts but still failed to produce and distribute the fuel.

Yokayo has grown slowly and learned along the way, he said. The company is still a small producer, he said, making about 15,000 gallons a month.

"Biodiesel has a lot of interesting little nuances that you need to get to know,'' he said. "It's its own beast, its own molecule.''

Like oil, biodiesel may have its limits because of the sources of the vegetable oils used to produce the fuel.

"People are really excited about biofuels now,'' Plocher said. "But there isn't much knowledge about them. For instance, the issue of sustainability.''

Much of the Bay Area's biodiesel is produced from waste vegetable oil that comes from restaurants -- including burger joints and Chez Panisse. Although that supply is now plentiful, it won't always be, especially if biodiesel use and healthier eating habits become more popular.

"It's extremely attractive and cost-effective, but it's very limited,'' said Severin Borenstein, head of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley.

Most of the biodiesel produced and used nationally is made from soybeans, which yield 50 gallons of biodiesel per acre, Plocher said. Sunflowers can produce up to 100 gallons an acre and canola (rapeseed) as much as 150 gallons an acre.

The huge amount of land required to grow biodiesel oil could crowd out food crops. Aware of that concern, some biodiesel producers have started importing palm oil from the tropics. But the growing popularity and production of palm oil for purposes including biodiesel has caused the destruction of rain forests in Malaysia and Indonesia, according to environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth.

Researchers are looking for more productive, and sustainable, sources of biofuel -- including algae. They're focusing primarily on four types of high-oil algae -- diatoms, green algae, blue-green algae and golden algae -- that could be cultivated in farms or ponds. Oils could be extracted using chemical solvents, enzymes, expeller presses, osmotic shock or ultrasonic shock waves.

But whatever its future, biodiesel has already generated a fleet of loyal fans who say they would never go back to petroleum diesel.

"It feels good to be living your own ethics,'' McNees said after filling his tank at the Biofuel Oasis. "It is a little bit of a hassle, but knowing that I'm not adding to the problem makes it so worth it.''

New life for old grease
Used frying oil is one source of vegetable oil that can be made into biodiesel. A common method called transesterification breaks down cooking oil, resulting in two valuable products: glycerine, an additive to soaps, and methyl esters, the chemical name for biodiesel, which can fuel a diesel engine.


-- Vegetable oil poured into processor

-- Oil is heated to 120° Fahrenheit

-- Acidity level is checked


-- Lye (alkaline base) and methanol (alcohol) are mixed in a separate container

-- Solution is mixed with oil


-- Oil is separated into glycerine and unwashed biodiesel

-- Glycerine removed


-- Biodiesel is washed with water


-- Oil is separated from water

-- Water removed

-- Processed biodiesel transferred to storage container


-- Biodiesel is "dried" or allowed to settle

-- Ready for fueling

Source: National Biodiesel Board

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