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The Pump is On: Biodiesel offers clean alternative to diesel fuel

Aug. 18, 2004 - ORACLE - Recycled fryer grease as clean burning fuel isn't exactly a household notion, but if Megan Hartman has anything to say about it, it's only a matter of time.

The 30-year-old Maine native opened her first bright blue fuel station Aug. 10 in this mountain town near Tucson, where she hopes to provide a green alternative to smelly, black-soot belching diesel cars and trucks.

"It's not the solution to the world's problems, but it's a simple decision that makes a difference - to get out from under the thumb of big petroleum and all the negative impacts it has on our society," she said. "And it's something you can do right now."

At Hartman's grand opening, environmental rapper Charris Ford gave an impromptu performance for a group of wide-eyed eighth graders from the local Sierra Oaks Community School who are studying alternative fuels.

Ford, who has toured with actress Darryl Hannah to promote biodiesel and jokingly refers to himself as the Granola Ayatollah of Canola, is the founder of Grassolean, a biodiesel cooperative in Telluride, Colo.

The outfit uses a 700-gallon batch process to make pure biodiesel from used French fry grease collected from local restaurants, which pay him $1.50 a gallon to take it away.

"It's a break-even situation," he said. "We operate on a modest scale." They make a kind of home brew for members, but also broker certified biodiesel like Hartman uses for other customers, including the city's biodiesel-operated bus, the Galloping Goose.

Biodiesel is made by reacting alcohol, usually methanol, with vegetable oil, fats or grease.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, biodiesel reduces nearly all forms of air pollution. It releases 78 percent less carbon dioxide, 68 percent fewer particulates, 75 percent fewer cancer causing hydrocarbons and 100 percent less sulfur dioxide than conventional diesel fuel.

And biodiesel users love the fact that the clean, renewable fuel can be poured directly into any diesel vehicle. "It's available now," Hartman said. "You don't need a fancy car or special equipment."

Hartman's Oracle company, Fourth Dimension Fuels, at 1395 American Ave., operates the first retail biodiesel pump in Southern Arizona to dispense pure biodiesel, B100.

In Tucson, Davis Monthan AFB, Tucson Electric Power, Raytheon Missile Systems and Sabino Canyon Tours all used blends of biodiesel and petroleum diesel for their diesel fleets, typically a 20 percent blend known as B20. Raytheon recently upped its biodiesel blend to B50.

"We are trying to expand that usage to the school districts," said Colleen Crowninshield, Clean Cities coordinator for the Pima Association of Governments, which co-sponsored Hartman's opening. "Diesel fuel from idling school buses is known to cause health problems in children. I'm working with 11 school districts trying to find options for biodiesel. The problem is the cost factor. It's very cost prohibitive right now, especially for a fleet, when you think about adding 10 to 20 cents per gallon, and schools just don't have the funding."

Down the line, she said, "there is some proposed federal legislation right now that would give a 1 cent percent subsidy for every gallon - a B20 blend would get a 20 cent per gallon subsidy."

School buses in Deer Valley Unified School District have driven more than 4 million miles on biodiesel. And the city of Flagstaff runs its entire diesel fleet on biodiesel.

Rudolf Diesel, who developed the diesel engine, used peanut oil to run the first diesel engine exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. By the 1920s, cheaper petroleum-based diesel fuel began to dominate the market.

The cost of biodiesel is about double the cost of regular gasoline. But so is the mileage.

Jim Lombard, who brought his children to the event, said his wife's new Volkswagon diesel gets 45 miles to the gallon and replaced another family car that got 20 miles to the gallon. "So even though the fuel is twice as much, we spend the same amount."

The Northwest hydrologist is so pleased with biodiesel that he bought a 1981 Mercedes diesel sedan for his teenage daughter, Alexandra, to use when she gets her learner's permit. "I'm happy about helping the planet," she said, giggling.

Lombard buys B100 in 55-gallon drums from Hartman's supplier, Arizona Petroleum, which has operated a biodiesel station at 1015 S. Cherry Ave. in Tucson for several years.

For the past two and a half years, Golder Ranch Fire District Fleet Supervisor Irv Jones has been making biodiesel for his personal use by recycling used restaurant grease from Claire's, Arby's and Mark Pi's in Catalina. He figures his costs - not including time - are about 65 or 70 cents a gallon.

Jones said he was "surprised and fascinated" by biodiesel after hearing a radio program about a college student who, as part of his senior thesis, traveled across the country in a diesel VW van that ran on cooking oil.

"I started doing some research on it," he said. "When I got my diesel Ford Escort four years ago that was one of my priorities."

Jones isn't pushing biodiesel for the district's fire engines and ambulances, although "theoretically they could run on biodiesel," he said. "I think it's a very good thing, but until it's more widely accepted, I don't see the department moving in that direction. We're taxpayer supported and that means we're cost conscious."

But as more people realize the benefits, he predicts that production will go up and costs will go down.

Jones, who has worked in Saudi Arabia and in Russia as a technical advisor for American auto companies there, said he would like to see more use of biodiesel to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

"If I can run my car without putting foreign oil in it, I'm doing something good for the economy," he said. "With the time I spend making it, do I save money? Probably not. But I do like charting my own course and the independence that comes with that."

For more information call 609-1162 or visit FourthDimen-sionFuels.com.