station coming to Oracle
By Aubin Tyler
2004 – ORACLE - The Internet buzz went something like this: The fast-food
giant McDonald’s had a plan to set up recycling stations at each of its
restaurants to convert used cooking grease into biodiesel, a nontoxic,
biodegradable and renewable fuel.
“It turned out
to be an April Fool’s joke,” said Megan Hartman. “But maybe that day will
Maine native is so convinced of the environmental benefits of biodiesel,
she plans to open a tank site in tiny Oracle to offer the fuel as a clean
burning replacement for sooty, smelly petrodiesel.
Peter Cooke of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, originally
turned Hartman on to the stuff. Last summer, she bought a used 1986
Volkswagen Jetta Diesel for $500 and the two started making pure
"rot-gut" biodiesel in a 55-gallon drum.
fryer grease from area restaurants and processed it using a recipe from the
Internet. Biodiesel is basically vegetable oil or animal fat with the
glycerin removed to make it less viscous and more easily combustible.
Glycerin, by the way, is valued by the cosmetics industry for use in lotions,
creams and other beauty products.
process, known as "transesterification," involves heating
filtered grease, adding alcohol and a catalyst, in this case methanol and
lye, which form a toxic brew, sodium methoxide.
stir it up, hold our breath and take turns dumping it into the oil -- then
we'd run," she said. "Once the oil and the sodium methoxide
react, it's no longer toxic, but at first a big cloud of fumes comes
The pair rigged up a giant blender using a drill fitted with an extra-long
rod suspended from 2 x 4's above the drum, and left the mixture to agitate
for an hour.
“Then we let it sit for eight or 10 hours,” she said. “The glycerin settles
to the bottom, and any water that has entered the mix separates out as a soapy
white residue on top of the glycerin.” Pure or neat 100 percent biodiesel
-- B100 -- can then be siphoned off the top.
"Some people use it straight but it's better to wash it with water to
remove excess methanol and unreacted alcohol," she said. "We put
it in a big jug, add water and shake. The water separates out to the bottom
because it's more dense than the biodiesel."
Jetta runs great on biodiesel, even after 225,000 miles. As for gas
mileage, it gives the same high performance as regular diesel: about 45 mph
in town and 60 mph on the highway. And the exhaust smells a lot better,
more like popcorn or French fries. A 6-year-old friend of Hartman's told
her, "Your car smells so good I want to eat it."
intriguing was biodiesel's larger potential as a non-polluting fuel.
"I had this idea, but I wasn't sure whether it was too
far-fetched," she said.
is not. Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, used peanut oil to
run the first diesel engine exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. By
the 1920s, cheap and efficient petroleum-based diesel fuel began to
dominate the market.
decided to leave a psychology graduate program in Portland to try her hand
in the fuels business after relatives offered her the use of their empty
house in Oracle.
tired of Maine winters," she said. "It's also easier to use
biodiesel in a warm climate." More about that later.
With her possessions and one cat, Hartman drove to Oracle in March,
carrying 30 gallons of biodiesel. “It’s nonflammable,” she said. “You can’t
set it off with a spark.”
Soon after, at
an alternative fuels’ fair at the Foothills Mall, she met Bob Spotswood,
division manager with Arizona Petroleum, which has offered soy-based
biodiesel in southern Arizona since October. "That set the whole thing
in motion," she said.
Coincidentally, the man who designed Arizona Petroleum's biodiesel tank
system happened to live in Oracle. Hartman ordered a double-walled
In May, she formed her company, Fourth Dimension Fuels. "In the
scientific community, the fourth dimension refers to the concept of
time," she said. "I'm not looking at this just in the short
term." Hartman hasn't set a launch date yet, but is currently
negotiating a possible tank site on Oracle's main drag, American Avenue.
This time, she wants to avoid the hassle of making it herself. "We had
to go around to restaurants and get the oil and then strain it through
panty hose to get out the French fries, Buffalo wings and mozzarella
sticks. It was pretty gross."
For her fuels business, Hartman plans to stock commercial quality B100 from
Arizona Petroleum, which already supplies a mix of 80 percent regular
diesel and 20 percent biodiesel (B20) to Raytheon Missile Systems and
Sabino Canyon Tours Inc. The petroleum company uses B20 in all of its own
diesel trucks and runs a retail B20 fuel site at its plant, 1015 S. Cherry
Ave., in Tucson.
operates in compression-ignition engines, just like regular diesel at the
pump, and runs any diesel vehicle. Favorites of the alternative fuel set
include the Volkswagen diesel Jetta, Rabbit, Golf, Quantum, Dasher and
Vanagon and Mercedes 2- and 3-series sedans and station wagons.
According to the U.S Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center
Web site, biodiesel produces fewer particulates, carbon monoxide, and
sulfur dioxide emissions, all targeted as public health risks by the
federal Environmental Protection Agency. Neat or pure bidiesel (B100)
reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 75 percent over petroleum
diesel. Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases contributing to
global warning. A B20 blend reduces those emissions by 15 percent.
used 21,000 gallons of B20 in its heavy-duty diesel vehicles and generators
since last November. "Basically anything with a diesel motor is now
fueled with biodiesel," said Jim Crosby, Raytheon's fleet manager.
"We love it. We have seen a complete seamless transition."
Tucson Electric Power began powering its diesel fleet with B20 in February.
our diesels, including diesel-powered engines, everything that used to run
on diesel now runs on biodiesel," said Joe Salkowski, a spokesperson
for the utility.
decided biodiesel was the best solution for us," he added. "We
have a lot of diesel equipment like our bucket trucks that would be hard or
impossible to replace. This way we can continue using our existing fleet
and still enjoy the environmental benefits. And the trucks like
biodiesel just fine."
As of mid-June, TEP has used 53,000 gallons of biodiesel. If the utility
continues at its current rate, its pollution savings over a year will
include 565 pounds of carbon monoxide, 158 pounds of volatile organic
compounds and 67 pounds of particulates.
"We like to do what we can to contribute to the quality of life here
in town," he said. "It also earns us credits towards the Energy
Policy Act of 1992." EPAct was passed by Congress and is phasing in
alternative fuel use by federal and state fleets and some utilities.
is just starting to take off," said Colleen Crowninshield, who
coordinates the Tucson Regional Clean Cities Coalition through the Pima
Association of Governments. "When you're looking at fleet vehicles,
the cost of converting (to other alternative energy sources) is huge. A lot
of companies can't absorb that cost. Biodiesel is attractive because
there's no cost to convert."
active since 1997, is part of a U.S. Department of Energy initiative to
reduce dependence on foreign fossil fuels and increase alternative fuel
use. It is now applying to the Environmental Protection Agency for a grant
to use biodiesel in local school buses. The EPA’s Clean School Bus USA
Grant Program will provide $5 million in grants to help school bus fleets
switch to cleaner burning fuel in an effort to limit children's exposure to
the harmful effects of diesel exhaust.
possible exception of the city of Berkeley, which switched its diesel fleet
to B100 in June, many companies using biodiesel today are cautiously
starting with a B20 blend, even though the greatest emissions reductions
are seen with B100.
than B20 are considered fine for diesel vehicles built since 1994, but the
jury is still out on using higher blends in older vehicles.
that B100 can corrode natural rubber in the fuel system," explained
Hartman. After 1994, the car industry switched to synthetic rubber
components, which are less susceptible to fuel system damage.
experiencing a leaky hose after she used an unwashed batch of the homemade
stuff, Hartman said the only problem she’s experienced is gel in the fuel,
a cold weather problem caused by congealing B100.
freezing winters, she used a lower blend, B50, and as with regular diesel,
an anti-gel. "And that’s in cold weather,” she said. “In Arizona, you
can use B100 year round."
At the moment,
biodiesel is more of an environmental decision than an economic one. Except
for the homemade stuff, which ran Hartman about 50 cents a gallon (with
free supply of lye and grease), it's not cheap.
roughly 20 cents a gallon higher than regular diesel, but the benefits to
the environment are tremendous," Arizona Petroleum's Spotswood said.
"And it reduces our dependence on foreign oil because it's made of
pure soy oil, which is abundant." The price of regular diesel at the
pump is about $1.50 to $1.75.
roughly a dollar more than regular diesel. Hartman figures she'll have to
sell B100 for $2.75 per gallon to make a 20- or 25-cent profit on the gallon.
But she likens it to a lifestyle choice, "I could buy Cheetos or I
could spend more on a healthy snack."
biodiesel is kind of like buying organic: More expensive initially, but
better for you (and the planet) in the long run. "It's worth it because
it has a clean, ripple effect on the environment."
fleet manager Crosby is interested in using a higher blend, but will
probably wait until the price drops. "I would love to go to B100. It's
better for the environment -- we know that. I'm hoping demand will grow and
give us a better price," he said. "We've got to clean up the
environment and become less dependent on foreign petroleum."
Cost has been
a limiting factor for the city of Tucson, which has been evaluating the
idea of starting a biodiesel plant at its landfill. The plant could produce
enough fuel for the city’s diesel fleet and Sun Tran buses, which together
consumed a million gallons of regular diesel last year.
Add in the
school districts and the county, and that figure jumps to four million
gallons of diesel annually, said Mark Schlieder, fleet equipment specialist
for the city.
That's a whole
lot of air pollution.
that for air quality it makes great sense, we just don't know about the
bucks yet," Schlieder said. "We're still looking at whether it's
to the cost, at least for individuals, is to convert to a “greasecar,” a
variation on the do-it-yourself theme. Along with B100, Hartman plans to
sell greasecar kits for $500 to $800. The kit modifies a diesel vehicle so
that it can run on used restaurant grease. After the main tank warms up the
car, a switch on the dashboard allows the engine to draw fuel from an extra
tank in the spare-tire well. The extra tank holds the grease, which is
heated via a coil to lower its viscosity and make it combust (obviating the
still have to collect and filter your own grease," she said. "But
it's free. Most restaurants are happy to have you come get it."
currently charges 1,500 restaurants in Tucson to pick up and dispose of
waste grease from their deep-fat fryers. The company cleans and processes
the oil and sends 80,000 pounds per week to Mexico for animal feed.
Hartman can count the number of biodiesel users in Tucson on two hands.
But, like the name of her fuels company, she hopes to be around for the
want to increase education and awareness," she said. "'I'm going
on the experience 'if you build it they will come.'" In Maine, her
former supplier - Solar Market – doubled its biodiesel sales, from 6,000 to
12,000 gallons a year in just three years, without advertising.
Her dad, Ira
Hartman, a high school physics and chemistry teacher, has become so
interested in biodiesel that he just finished building a garage-workshop to
manufacturer commercial quality biodeisel for the family’s home heating
contagious phenomenon," said the younger Hartman. "I've watched
the way it's spread and it's really pretty exciting."
On the Net:
DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center
Tucson Regional Clean Cities Coalition
National Biodiesel Board
EPA Clean School Bus USA Grant Program