Bio-Fool for the masses

The lease on my Mini Clubman came due and I remembered that the whole point of getting a new car three years ago was to get a diesel and run it on vegetable oil.  I wanted off the petroleum grid! I cringed every time I joined the line of traffic on 101. I was part of the problem, I was one of the reasons we were in the Middle East! The amount of stress incurred by just being in business for myself at a middle ages trade in a high tech society was enough with out adding a dose of guilt and denial by burning Saudi oil in California at the end of the Oil Age.

 I loved the Mini and they had a diesel but only in Europe. Could I buy one there and bring it back? Only if I could get it CA smog qualified. I called a company that specialized in doing just that. How much to do a new diesel Mini from Europe? The number was absurd-somewhere around $250,000. What was going on here? A small car that could burn clean, non-petrol-based fuel was essentially blocked from being used in the USA. It seemed like there was another agenda in play.  So I took a three year lease with the regular Mini Clubman, hoping that maybe the diesel would be available by now. No such luck but I was determined to get off the petroleum habit. The technology exists, it had to be possible to do. Unless I could get extremely lucky and find an old Mercedes diesel station wagon, I was going to have to buy a new car. I had a business where I already wore many hats, I did not need to add another position called car mechanic.

I googled "best new car for bio-diesel" and up popped the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. I searched further for info on what had to be done to the car to run on veggie oil. It seems that there are two ways to burn veggie oil in a diesel engine.

One method is to install a second fuel tank for the veggie oil, usually in the trunk, and a heater unit on the tank to heat the oil so it becomes thin enough to flow through the fuel and carburator lines. On a cold morning, you start up the engine using regular diesel fuel from the original tank and run it on that until your veggie oil has heated up enough to flow through the lines. Then you flick a switch on the dash board, activating a valve in the fuel line to switch to the hot veggie oil from tank number two. By now your engine is warmed up to normal operating heat of 190F and the veggie oil works fine. Everything is cool(hot, really) until you get to where you're going and want to turn the engine off. If you're only stopping for a half an hour, you can probably just start it up again with the veggie oil, no problem, but if you're going to be there long enough to let the engine cool down, you have to clear the veggie oil out of the lines and get back on petro-diesel from tank number one. I think the magic time frame is six minutes that you need to run the engine on tank number one to clear the veggie oil out of the lines. That means you have to remember to flick the switch on the dashboard six minutes before you get where you're going. If you forget and the engine cools down, then you probably will be calling a tow truck and this is not a problem that he can fix by the side of the road.

The second way to use veggie oil is to run it through a "de-esterfication" process which removes the sticky glycerine, turning it into Bio-diesel, a thin, easily flowing fuel that does not need any pre-heating. This means you do not need a second tank, fuel line valve or a switch on your dashboard. You just pump it like regular diesel. I read up on the process and it seemed pretty simple, just mix up 30 gallons of used veggie oil with a couple lbs of caustic lye and 4 gallons of extremely flammable methanol, heat it up to 130F(electrically-no gas flame or you might have a big fire…) and stir it vigorously for 15 minutes. Let it settle and separate for a few hours, drain off the slimy glycerine and you're left with bio-diesel that you can theoretically put into the fuel tank of your diesel vehicle.

You can also buy bio-diesel already made. There are a few stations around the Bay Area that sell bio-diesel for the same amount as regular petro-diesel fuel-about $4.50 per gallon. If you have the equipment and the used veggie oil and no overhead, you can make it for a little over a dollar per gallon.

I came up with a 5 phase plan to get off petroleum:

Get a car with a diesel engine

Run the car on Bio-diesel

Learn how to make bio-diesel

Install a bio-diesel tank at my house 

Set up a bio-diesel reactor at my house

Buying a new car is right up there with getting a divorce as far as enjoyable activities for me. My cousin, the divorce attorney, told me that the definition of a good, equitable divorce is that you both feel like you got screwed. Whenever I have bought a new car, even if I haggled like crazy and did all my due diligence, I have always been left with the feeling that I got screwed and paid more than I should have. 

This time, I went on the internet, looked at all the Edmund's and Consumer's Report and AAA car pricing and buying services. They tell you how much it's going to cost and a day later, the car salesmen that I had hoped to avoid are calling me on the phone to sell me the car. I felt like a pig in a poke. They told me the prices on the websites may not be entirely accurate or that model car may not be available and when did I want to come in and sit down with them and go over some numbers? I didn't ever want to go and sit in their office. It was practically the same as going to a casino and drunkenly waving hundred dollar bills. They had the home advantage when you were in their office and they were like the blackjack dealer that knew where every card was in the deck. You will be sheared like a sheep in their office.

I decided to tell

them what the price was going to be. The model I wanted was being quoted as somewhere between $27K and $29K. I also wanted to remove the financing option, which is where a lot of mischief happens even if you haggle a good price. I called all the dealers in the Bay area and told them I had $25,000 cash for the car. They all laughed at me. I drove to a dealership in the East Bay and met Gary, a quiet spoken salesman and told him what I wanted and for how much. I told him not to ask me into his office to go over numbers and I warned him never to say anything like "How 'bout them Giants?" Just sell me a blue Jetta TDI Sportwagen for $25K. He went to his sales manager and came back with a price of $26,900. I told him no thanks and walked out to my car. The sales manager ran after me saying we could work something out. If I would just come into his office, he was sure we could work something out…

"Gary has my number and you shouldn't run after customers like this." I told him "It's embarrassing."

The next day I got an email from a man who identified himself as the President of the dealership.

He wrote: Nobody walks out of my dealership without a deal!

I wrote back: Fine. Gary has my number and knows what I want.

4 days later Gary called and said we had a deal.  

I ran the first 500 miles on regular petro-diesel and then on to Phase Two:  Run the car on bi-diesel. 

I said to hell with the manufacturer's recommendations of no more than 5% bio-diesel and pumped a full tank of 100% bio-diesel. The Jetta seemed very happy humming down the freeway at 80 miles an hour. It was a great feeling to know that my fuel came from Northern California restaurants! The used grease took a  short trip to the biodiesel processing facility in Nevada and then back to a big tank at Dog Patch Bio Fuels on the back of Portrero Hill. My fuel traveled a mere 200 miles on Route 80 instead of the 10,000 miles and who knows how many bullets, military maneuvers or ocean spills it took to get the oil here from the Middle East.

I was not part of the problem any more! I was part of the solution!

Time for Phase Three: Learn how to make bio-diesel

I ordered some lab glassware equipment to mix up small batches of bio-diesel. On, they have a wonderful array of chemical glassware available for not much money that takes one back to high school chem lab days. All I needed was a white lab jacket and I would be robot walking around the kitchen, slashing chemicals around and singing She Blinded Me With Science! I got a cheap blender from Walmart and the necessary chemicals from the hardware store.

One Saturday afternoon, I mixed a one liter batch of biodiesel in the kitchen, using a new bottle of Wesson oil from Safeway. As I heated the oil, I mixed the methanol and caustic lye to make methoxide, making sure to wear elbow-length rubber gloves and face shield. I poured the the hot oil into the blender, added the methoxide, set the blender on low and let it mix for 15 minutes. I turned the blender off and let the mixture sit for a few hours. It gradually separated into two distinct layers, the glycerine on the bottom and the fuel floating on top. I drained off the glycerine. Now to "wash" the fuel. I added 30% tap water to the fuel and ran an aquarium bubbler to the bottom of the mixture. The rising bubbles took small amounts of water through the fuel, removing the impurities. After a few hours, I tested the result and it was clean. I ordered more equipment.

Now to try the real thing-used restaurant oil from the deep fryer. I asked a Chinese restaurant for some oil out of their waste oil barrel and mixed up another batch.  Not so good this time. I had a white gloppy mess and no separation. I added in some rock salt and it finally separated. I ordered more equipment.

The next weekend I tried some of my leftover bacon grease. It separated nicely. I ordered more equipment.

Already my mind was spinning on how to corner the market on used kitchen oil. As I drove around town, I started spotting all the 50 gallon drums behind restaurants and plotting how I would get my hands on the liquid gold. Of course I would need a transfer system on my truck to remove the oil from the drums and take it back to my house to process. That would entail a large tank on my truck with a 12 volt pump and sucker hose. Not to mention the filtration tank I would need back at my house to clean all the food bits out of the restaurant oil. Wow, it was turning into a multi-phased plan.  I paced around my double garage and visualized where everything would be to get the most efficiency. I also ordered more equipment.

I found a 100 liter bio-diesel reactor for sale on craigslist and drove to Santa Cruz and bought it for $1500 and never wondered why the guy knocked off $100 easily and threw in all sorts of stuff. He seemed glad to get rid of all the sticky greasy collection and filtration barrels and boxes of chemicals in unlabeled jars. He threw in a quarter-full barrel of methanol and told me to turn it so a trooper wouldn't see the label if he stopped me.

Those of you who may know me will recognize I was now in my trademark manic phase of project fulfillment, which is where I skip over most of the logical, important, early phases and go for the BIG PLAN and collect a lot of equipment before I know what all is involved. I'm ignoring obvious signs that this is not a panacea. I'm transporting hazardous chemicals without a permit. I'm storing extremely flammable methanol in the garage.

About a week after I got the equipment back to my garage, the property management company sent me a notice saying they wanted to do an inspection of my house. I tried to imagine what they would think as I looked at the equipment in my kitchen and dining room: chemical glassware; distillation coil; titration flasks; apothecary-style beakers with glass caps-filled with different colored bio-diesel batches that I had made over the last few weeks; 2000ml Erlenmeyer flasks with raw, smelly used kitchen grease from chinese restaurants; beautiful glass funnels; 600ml beakers which were now my favorite tea mugs; three different digital scales; red rubber lab hose. Not to mention what they would make of the greasy barrels in the garage next to the large double chambered 40 gallon bio-diesel reactor tank with


stenciled across the front. One 55 gallon drum in particular would be very troubling as it was the aforementioned, highly flammable methanol.

The likely conclusion of the property manager, I realized with horror, would be that I was cooking methamphetamine in very large quantities and supplying most of San Francisco and San Jose with crystal meth.

This is when I momentarily saw a red flag waving in front of my current obsession. Not a good idea to cook at the house, I thought. I loaded up my truck and took all the equipment to the shop the day before the inspection.

My solution was to fabricate a Jules Verne-ish steampunk style steel bio-diesel reactor complete with brass tubing and old fashioned pressure gauges so it would look like it came out of a soviet submarine circa 1950 and cook the bio-diesel at the shop, incorporating my bio-diesel lifestyle into my new marketing plan for Jefferson Mack Metal! I could power my forges with bio-diesel and be the first "green" blacksmith! My car and my truck would be run on bio-diesel and I had plans to build a bio-diesel space heater to heat the shop in the winter. And all of it would be made on-site at the shop!

I would have to order more equipment...