Biodiesel: Evil or Sexy?

by: Sara on 04/14/2015

Small-scale home biodiesel production holds a singular attraction for any do-it-yourself enthusiast who want to reduce their dependence on Big Oil. Today's blog post is from the introduction of Lyle Estill and Bob Armantrout's new book, Backyard Biodiesel, How to Brew Your own Fuel,
where the virtues of biodiesel are debated. 

Designed to be accessible to everyone, Backyard Biodiesel is packed with everything you need to get up and running quickly and safely.

Poor old biodiesel is badly misunderstood.

Some people think that it can save the world. It can’t. Others think that biodiesel is the answer to really big, unfathomably complex problems, like peak oil, or America’s dependence on foreign oil. It’s not.

Many people think that biodiesel is sexy. Sometimes it is. Others think it is evil. It can be. Still others are confused about what role biodiesel can play in America’s energy mix. As a fuel, it is both dismissed and embraced by environmentalists, survivalists, politicians and everyone in between.

Biodiesel is made from fats, oils and greases. The word “grease” typically indicates the liquid version of “fat.”

Its problem is a function of scale. It is entirely possible to connect with a local restaurant to collect some used fryer oil to make enough fuel to power your family, or your neighborhood or your small town with biodiesel. That’s the sexy part.

The problem lies with the human animal’s desire for growth. Or more simply, the problem lies with greed. When you successfully make your first gallon of fuel, it’s exciting, and it makes you want to make a hundred gallons more. When you have made your first hundred gallons, it makes you want to make a million gallons. And when you do that, you want to make a hundred million gallons more.

Since you will rapidly run out of used fats, oils and greases, you will need another feedstock to make enough fuel. Let’s do this: burn down the rainforest in Malaysia and plant oil palm trees all in a row. Crush the palm seeds into oil, load the oil onto a supertanker and send it to Seattle, where there is a one-hundred- million-gallon biodiesel plant in the harbor. Spin the palm oil into fuel, put it on a train, send the train to North Carolina, put the product on a truck and take it to the airport to burn in their fleet. When they have burned enough of it, let’s give them an award for being “green.”

That’s how biodiesel can be evil. Stop the madness.

And the reverse is also true.

I work at Piedmont Biofuels. We are a community-scale biodiesel plant with a one-million-gallon per year capacity. There was a time when the American dollar fell off a cliff, and the euro was still strong. That was when Europeans were taking shopping trips to New York, and hotdog vendors were accepting euros on the street corner.

During that period, when America was at a discount, the Europeans came over and bought up all of the poultry fat in the southeastern United States. They then approached eleven biodiesel plants (including Piedmont) and essentially said, “Now that we own all of the feedstock, how would you like to work for us?”

We all agreed. They rented a three-million-gallon tank in the Savannah harbor with a floating lid, and we all shipped product to them. Piedmont turned a tanker load of fuel every other day, and the sum total of our endeavor would raise the lid on that tank by one inch.

When they had aggregated enough fuel, they would ship a supertanker from Savannah to Rotterdam, blend our product into the European fuel system and deliver it to the street corner in London so that the fellow filling up his diesel vehicle could call himself “green.”

Again, stop the madness.

Biodiesel can be evil. It can also be a good thing. Perhaps Kent Bullard said it best. He used to procure biodiesel to power his national park, and as a champion of the product, he liked to say, “Biodiesel is one tool in the sustainability toolbox.”

He’s right about that. If you can lay your hands on some waste feedstock, you can convert it into fuel to provide motive power, and that can be a good thing. Especially if you can stay small.

Everyone admires the small-scale producer — especially the backyard brewer who is merely meeting his or her fuel needs, and clobbering the price at the pump. But again, we need to be careful.

Making your own fuel is like heating with wood. It takes work. Lots of work.

People gathered around the warm radiant heat of a woodstove tend to romanticize “heating with wood.” If you live in the woods, like we do, firewood is “free.”What typically gets left out of the equation is the skidding, chainsawing, splitting and curing that goes into a decent piece of firewood. As a heat source, it is deeply satisfying, and expensive.

The same is true of backyard biodiesel. Making fuel is hot, heavy, smelly, dangerous work, and getting a tankful can be a chore. But once it is done, driving down the road on fuel you have made yourself is a liberating, exhilarating and wonderful feeling.

Once the work is done, it’s easy to enumerate biodiesel’s charms: everything from “Made in America” to “No War Required. ”People who drive around on B100 (100% biodiesel) are largely off the petroleum grid — free of dead pelicans on the evening news, exempt from tithing to Halliburton.

If you want to make your own fuel, this book can help lighten the load. It can help you get the recipe right, and it offers lots of stories and insights that will save you grief, and work.

Bob and I have a lot of experience making biodiesel. I was a backyard brewer when Bob was running a commercial plant. I was running Piedmont Biofuels when Bob started teaching biodiesel at Central Carolina Community College. We are intimate with this fuel. Our talents combined have already made most of the mistakes that can be made when making fuel, or collecting oil or distributing product. Our intent is to lay those bare to save you thousands of dollars, and massive amounts of work.

I should note that this book occasionally bumps up and down between backyard fuel making and commercial production. We have tried to keep a fence around commercial production, intentionally attempting to leave it out. But to do so completely would give an incomplete story. Things like ASTM D6751 is the commercial specification for biodiesel, and its components serve as a guide for backyard fuel quality. And like it or not, backyard fuel makers are part of the biodiesel industry.

Tensions between backyard brewers, community-scale biodiesel plants and giant commercial concerns have lessened considerably over the past decade. There is now an acceptance of small producers by the National Biodiesel Board, and the industry’s flagship periodical, Biodiesel Magazine, has increasingly covered small producers over the years. While it might be a begrudging acceptance, there is an understanding that the people on the ground making their own fuel are the ones that create the buzz for the industry in general. The popularization of biodiesel as a fuel is due in large part to the accidental public relations work done by those making fuel in the backyard.

Hopefully you will enjoy the pithy wisdom, or the practical shortcuts or the tales of sheer stupidity contained herein.

Of the two of us, I’m the storyteller, and Bob is the operations guy. I’m good at broad outlines, and thirty-thousand-foot views, and Bob is good at the details and the technical stuff.

We think it will be easy for you to tell our two voices apart. I do the style; Bob does the substance. When the writing is facetious, personal and over-endowed with self-importance, that’s Lyle. When the writing is straightforward and technical, that’s Bob.

A note of caution: When making your own fuel, it is easy to get lost in technical details. And technical details are important. But after all the titrations, and BTU measurements and pump preferences have faded — after all the opinions, and false claims and misinformation have been forgotten, the empowerment that accompanies making fuel from scratch is amazing.

When we get into the nuts and bolts of backyard biodiesel production, we tend to refer to Amazon as a baseline lowest price. Clearly it would be better for you, and your local economy and for biodiesel in general, to spend your dollars at your locally owned hardware store, or at one of the biodiesel parts retailers mentioned in this book.

In a world of top-down energy choices, where you need to inherit an oil well in order to participate, biodiesel is empowering.

Perhaps it is the empowerment that counts. That’s the point of this book. To empower you.

Other titles from Lyle Estill




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