Biodiesel Basics: How to Run Your Car on Used Salad Oil

Article excerpt

For financial, political and environmental reasons--including the fact that we may soon reach the peak of oil production, after which fossil fuels will get increasingly expensive--Americans are trying out biodiesel, both in their vehicles and (mainly in the Northeast) for home heating.

Biodiesel emits 78 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than petroleum diesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board, but it's not necessarily squeaky green. According to Kathryn Phillips, manager of Environmental Defense's California Clean Air for Life campaign, it actually increases nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions, which react with other chemicals to create ground-level ozone, or smog, significantly impacting lung development in children.

However, Phillips adds that the biodiesel industry is working on methods to reduce NOX via an additive or catalyst. NOX emis sions result from the catalytic conversion process and therefore aren't a problem when biodiesel is used for home heating.

Another area of concern is that biodiesel is often made from genetically engineered (GE) soybeans, and is a product of the industrial agriculture system that results in topsoil loss and fertilizer runoff. Actress and biodiesel advocate Daryl Hannah counsels caution about the developing industry, warning, "It may encourage people to use more pesticides and GM crops. We shouldn't cut off the nose to spite the face."

Without workarounds, biodiesel faces cold-weather issues since it becomes unusably gelatinous as the temperature approaches freezing. Still, in spite of its challenges, biodiesel is a far greener alternative than petroleum, according to its advocates. "Particulate matter from diesel is a really bad pollutant and a carcinogen," says Phillips. And in spite of its long-held reputation as being a premium-cost fuel for elite environmentalists, after shortages caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the price of biodiesel became quite competitive with standard fuel oil for Northeastern homeowners with oil burners.

Take Action

If you want to use the alternative fuel to wean yourself off Big Oil, step one is to buy a diesel car or truck, since gasoline vehicles can't burn biodiesel. (However, Hannah points out that gasoline-powered cars can be converted to run on alcohol/ethanol. She's put the TransAm from her film Kill Bill up on blocks until she gets a chance to do the conversion.)

There are three basic fuels available to biodiesel drivers: B100 (pure, processed biodiesel from retailers), B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular petroleum diesel, also available from retailers), and fryer oil ("recycled" oil from restaurants that is not sold commercially).

B100 and B20 can be put directly into any diesel engine. If drivers are unable to find biodiesel (or if it's too cold to use the higher blends), they can simply switch to standard petroleum diesel. B20, because it is mostly diesel fuel, can be used virtually year-round.

The best solution for using B100 in the winter is to use a heated filter or a tank heater, both of which plumb the coolant system to heat the fuel to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the engine is warmed, it alone can keep the biodiesel at the proper viscosity. Robert Lewis, technical service specialist at fuel filtration products company Racor, says his company sells these devices for $200 to $400. But, he adds, "You still need a second tank with diesel fuel for the starting and shutting down sequence, because you don't want the oil to gel inside the filter when it gets cold."

Lewis says he gets the most calls from customers who want to run their vehicles on straight used vegetable oil, also known as SVO. For people willing to mix petroleum with their biodiesel, engine gizmos aren't necessary. Instead, you can mix your fuel in different concentrations throughout the year, as biodiesel advocate Charris Ford did when he lived in Telluride, Colorado. …