Last Thursday I got a call from the NC Department of Energy. They needed a speaker for their impending project, which was the NC Biomass Resource Conference, at NC State University. I like speaking gigs. I can even be good at them. But on this occasion I was leaving early the next morning for a family weekend in Washington, D.C.
My daughter was attending a conference there, and I was delivering new sculptural work to http://www.faagallery.com.
I came home Sunday, and wrote this talk about our grassroots biodiesel efforts thus far.
Two years ago I caught a bus to the Festival for the Eno on which a tour guide was espousing the virtues of biodeisel. She was talking about this clean burning, renewable fuel which was powering the bus.
I raised my hand.
First question: “What do I have to modify to run it in my tractor?”
Answer: “Nothing. Just add it to your existing fuel system and it runs fine.”
Next question: “Will it clog my fuel lines?”
Answer: “Nope. It increases lubricity and has a cleansing effect on your fuel
Next question: “Where can I get some?”
Answer: “You can’t. It’s all on State contract right now, and not available to the
Everything was good until then.
I don’t like hearing “You can’t” Here’s a fuel that is renewable. We can grow it ourselves. If I’m not mistaken we pay farmers not to grow stuff in this country. If I’m not mistaken, North Carolina’s farm economy could benefit greatly from any tobacco alternative. “You can’t?” It has reduced emissions, increased lubricity and longer engine life? And I can’t get it?
So I went home from the Festival for the Eno and hopped on the net and read up on biodiesel. And while I learned that it was not commercially available in North Carolina, I also found resources that explained how I could make it myself out of used vegetable oil.
Thanksgiving arrived, and I deep fried a turkey as usual. This time, however, instead of dumping the used oil in the woods, as was my usual practice, I collected it into containers. I had read Joshua Tickell’s book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and I made a batch of biodiesel in the blender
It’s pretty simple, really. You measure the Ph of the waste vegetable oil to create a recipe. The recipe calls for lye, and methanol in the right proportions to make methoxide.
You mix the methoxide into the oil and if you get a good reaction it will separate into two parts: glycerin on the bottom layer, and biodiesel on top.
Anyone can make biodiesel in a blender.
I was encouraged by my early results, and was planning to “ramp” my production, when I saw a flyer at the General Store CafÈ in Pittsboro. It was advertising Bio Fuels 1 down at Central Carolina Community College.
I went down to take the course, only to find a couple of instructors, who were about to
read Joshua Tickell’s book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank. I jumped in with them and away we went.
By the way. They don’t remember the oil crisis of the seventies. Why? They weren’t born yet. In this class, I am instantly the “Old man of Biodiesel.
“Fuels One,” which focused almost exclusively on biodiesel, was immediately followed by “Fuels Two: SVO.” Since they have an Automotive department, they thought it would be fun start cutting into the fuel systems on diesel vehicles and adding systems that would allow them to burn straight vegetable oil.
I was encouraged by their insights and bravery, such that I went out an bought a diesel pickup truck which became a class “conversion” project.
Running on straight vegetable oil is quite simple, actually. You start your journey on diesel or biodiesel, or whatever you have in your normal tank. You drive a bit, and as you do so, you take the waste heat from your vehicle and run it into your vegetable oil tank. We do this by “Teeing” into the coolant lines, and running the hot liquid to a radiator in an additional tank full of vegetable oil. Once your veggie is good and hot, you throw a switch on the dash that tells the fuel pump to stop sucking biodiesel and start sucking veggie, and that’s the moment that your exhaust begins smelling like fries.
As I approach my second Thanksgiving of running on grease, this is a good time to reflect and take stock on where we have been. Our program at CCCC has participated in the conversions of a half dozen vehicles. We’ve made biodiesel from a wide variety of incoming feedstocks. We have filled up our biofuels classes semester after semester.
And we are currently landing on what is about our fifth homemade biodiesel reactor design. We’ve been making fuel in my back yard with a fusion of book learning, and trial and error. When we “broke the blender barrier” with a successful ten gallon batch, the news spread far and wide. We had groups coming from as far away as Charlotte to see how they could do. We had one group come through from Washington D.C.
We’ve been making thirty gallon batches of biodiesel for awhile now. We power a handful of vehiclesóalthough I will admit we cannot make the fuel fast enough.
Think about it for a second. 50 gallons is not a lot of fuel. But 50 gallons is a terrific amount of used vegetable oil. If five of us get together to make a batch, we don’t all drive away full from thirty gallons.
I went off to study biodeisel production technology at the Iowa State Energy Center, where I was surrounded by a bunch of Phd chemists and chemical engineers. I was the only one there that had actually run on homemade fuel. They looked at me like a laboratory rat.
Alex Hobbs has since armed me with a nice term to use when dealing with academics: Empirical learning. That’s the term for what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years down in Chatham County. And it appears that our group will be helping the folks down at the NC Solar Center with the biodeisel exhibit in the Alternative Fuels Garage.
We are delighted to have a role in that project, and it’s all we can do to bite our tongues from saying that it feels like the tail is wagging the dog.
But back to the progress we’ve made.
We no longer have to “scoop” waste vegetable oil out of dumpsters. It’s now delivered to us by a grease hauler in the Triangle. It comes to the dock we have built that is just the right height, and we can take delivery of 200 gallons of waste vegetable oil in less than thirty minutes. We have been into many many dumpsters around the area, and believe me, everyone is pleased with our new volume grease handling capabilities. Our new processing target is 2000 gallons per month.
And we’ve done some outreach. We showed our converted vehicles off at NC Fuel Choice, where we also had a booth. We did Earth Day over at UNC, the Sustainable Energy Expo in Asheville, the Shakori Grassroots festival, etcetera.
And we’ve written some grants. We wrote a SARE grant for a seed press and biodiesel reactor that we plan to integrate into CCCC’s sustainable agriculture program. The concept is simple: we put in a seed crop at the College, crush it onsite, make fuel from the virgin product, which we will then use to run the tractor to plant and harvest the seed crop. It could be a closed loop. We are new to writing grants, but we hope this one flies.
And we responded to NC DOE’s latest RFP for a Clean Technology Demonstration project. We basically have asked for funding to build a portable biodiesel reactor (powered by a biodiesel generator) that we can tote from town to town to show off what we know. We have our fingers crossed on that oneóand we are not expert grant writersóso if any of you are insiders at DOE and would like to give me some scoop, I know our group would appreciate it.
By the wayóback to the closed loop for a second. The college doesn’t have a cafeteria. Otherwise we could crow the oil crop, crush the seeds to harvest the oil, fry something for the kids to eat, and then make the fuel from the leftovers.
My father up in Canada sees no future in this. He is an energy hawk who has been recycling and conserving all his life. But he’s afraid that current health trends are moving away from fried foods. I tell him that he might be right, but that this is North Carolina. I say to him, “Dad, fried dough is a delicacy here.” The other day I encountered a fried Snicker’s bar. I’m allergic to peanuts, but it sure looked delicious.
So we’ve done some outreach. We’ve made some fuel. And we’ve converted some vehicles. I don’t think Triangle Clean Cities has seen an overall reduction in emissions as the result of our project, but we are working on it.
And they are making great strides toward popularizing biodiesel and making it commercially available, They have also been a terrific clearinghouse for information. Last night I sent ten gallons of methanol off from our operation to a group in Alamance County who are starting in the blender tomorrow night, with the intention of powering their own fleet on homemade fuel within a year. From what I hear Triangle Clean Cities needs fundingóso if any of you are sitting around with left over budgets, they would make an excellent place to put your money.
And us? We are just about to move out of the backyard into a facility in downtown Pittsobro. That’s right. We’re moving uptown. We’ve hired a full time fuelmaker, who has moved to Pittsboro, and we have just successfully completed an incoming feedstock preparation step which should improve our ability to get successful batches from virtually anything.
By the way, speaking of virtually anything, is anyone here today talking about the black soldier fly? Apparently NC State is actively doing research on using the black soldier fly to digest hog waste. Apparently the little guys “self harvest,” that is when they hit the right stage of their life cycle, they climb out of the hog waste, apparently gorged on the stuff, and they land in large troughs. Apparently when you squish them, what comes out could be pure fuel.
When I was at Iowa State they showed me a jar of black soldier fly juice that they were about to start experimenting with. I have an idea. Let’s do that work here. For heaven’s sake, we have the hog waste. Why not use it to derive fuel to power our tractors and our whole farm economy for that matter?
Anyway, that’s my take on biodiesel. We are doing some outreach. Are classes are full down at Central Carolina Community Collegeóbut do come and take one with us because we can always make space for more. We’ve done some research, and we are planning on doing some more. We’ve made some fuel, and we are planning on making a lot more.