Vegetable Oil: a DiY solution to fossil fuel pollution

thThe fossil fuel industry has an enormous impact on politics, the economy, and our health. This pollution Goliath is just too powerful to fight with government regulations. Take matters into your own hands and put vegetable oil in your fuel tank.

Electric cars will also be a good green choice some day. Unfortunately 44 percent of electricity is generated at coal-burning plants. The new construction of wind farms and run-of-the-river hydroelectric dams to power our super high-efficiency electric cars should be part of our long-term green energy strategy, but such projects require huge start-up funds and massive political support. People who want to help fight environmental pollution and disentangle our politics from the Middle East now — with the technology that is currently available — can run their diesel vehicles on vegetable oil.algaeoil

Although burning vegetable oil does release carbon into the air, this carbon is already part of a natural cycle of plants taking in CO2 from the air and releasing oxygen. When plants decay, the stored carbon is released back into the environment. Burning vegetable oil does not add more carbon into the atmosphere than is already part of the available carbon constantly being recycled. In contrast, the carbon in fossil fuels is brought up from deep below the surface and added to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Fossil fuel prices may be down now, but they will be up again soon enough. Currently, there are affordable sources of sustainable green fuel, including biodiesel made from recycled waste oil at about $4 per gallon, or palm oil which can be found in at discount supermarkets for about $7 per gallon. If you can trade in the commodities market, you might be able to get a metric ton of cooking oil for far less. Considering the savings this would bring in terms of reducing pollution and cutting back on the wars for oil, even buying $7 per gallon oil at the supermarket will seem worthwhile to some.

Palm oil has the highest yield of vegetable oils at about 635 gallons per acre per year and is a sustainable source for oil as long as no deforestation occurs to keep up with demand. New techniques for growing algae can yield at least 1,000-5,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (some estimates are much higher), which may mean substantially lower prices for biofuel in the near future, according to researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Algae can grow in salt water or in wastewater, in areas where other kinds of farming are not profitable. It can grow in fracking water, removing the toxins, or near coal-burning plants to clean CO2 out of the air. This plant-based sustainable fuel will definitely be part of our green energy independence plan for the future. We can help make that future arrive sooner by increasing consumer demand for algae oil now by using available biofuel: pure biodiesel, waste vegetable oil (WVO) or straight vegetable oil (SVO).

Although a diesel car is generally more expensive, the owner can save in the long run because diesel engines are easier to maintain and repair and last a lot longer than gasoline engines. Most existing diesel engines can run 20 percent biodiesel without any modification, and with modification, any diesel can run on 100 percent unrefined plant oil.

Pure Biodeisel B100

A diesel car can run on pure biodiesel (B100) as long as it is a late model with synthetic rather than rubber hoses and seals. B100 or B99 is 99 percent vegetable oil fuel, usually processed from waste vegetable oils (WVO), used frying oil and other food industry wastes. The glycerin, stuff that could gum up the engine, is removed via catalysts, such as methanol or ethanol. B100 usually sells for about the same per gallon as regular petrodiesel and gas mileage is about the same. B100 can also be purchased through a member-owned local co-operative, like this one in Baltimore, or through a local distributor.
According to EPA reports, using B100 eliminates the sulfur emissions associated with conventional diesel, cuts emissions of carbon monoxide and particulate matter in half, and reduces hydrocarbon emissions by about eighty percent. There are some drawbacks to B100. When temperatures go below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the oil thickens, and motorists are advised to switch to B20 or lower.
Straight Vegetable Oil

Switching to B100 (or even B10 or B20) to power a diesel vehicle is definitely a step in the right direction. When B100 is difficult to find, a diesel car on more expensive straight vegetable oil (SVO). Most diesel engines ran on SVO until the 1920s and many continued to do so throughout the world wars when petro was in short supply. Most DiYers will find it comforting to think that, whatever happens on the geo-politic fossil fuel stage, vegetable oil can always be locally grown. Today’s diesel engines can still run on SVO or filtered WVO without any modifications to the engine, but long-term problems may develop due to vegetable oil’s higher viscosity compared to petro-based fuels.
Older diesel cars, such as 1980s Mercedes and Volkswagens, are recommended for running on SVO and filtered WVO because their engines are less complicated. For newer models, inexpensive modification kits are available that allow motorists to avoid possible long-term problems of using SVO. Most kits include a separate tank for the vegetable oil and flush regular petrodiesel or B20 through the engine before turning off to clean out the thicker oil. In winter, the extra tank allows you to start your car with petrodiesel or B20, which don’t gum up in the cold. The leading suppliers of modification kits are Greasecar and Frybrid.

Using Biofuels Will Not Drive Up Food Prices

Don’t worry that using plant oil in your car will drive up the price of corn tortillas in Mexico, causing people to starve. The impact biofuel users could have on the economy is to force cattle ranchers to turn their herds out to graze. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that 80 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is currently used to feed animals — animals that have been designed by evolution to eat grass and cannot properly digest corn or other grains without developing significant health problems. (Turning out cattle also improves pastureland and creates more CO2 sequestering grasses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) A little less than 10 percent of corn grown is used to make high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which we all could to do without, and about 10 percent is used to make ethanol. A very small fraction of the corn grown in the US goes to human consumption as regular corn or corn meal for highly processed foods, which we also could do without.

Researcher Tim Searchinger’s widely cited January report damning the biofuel industry fails to stress the fact that corn and soybean are today’s main sources of ethanol biofuel, and they are not suitable oil crops. Corn, with a yield of about 18 gallons per acre per year, is a very poor source for biofuel. Soybean does a little better at about 47 per acre. Farmland is definitely wasted growing these crops for ethanol (or animal feed). There are much better crops. Among U.S. crops currently available for biofuel, rapeseed has a yield of about 127 gallons per acre per year, sunflower about 102. Biofuel users cannot be held responsible for a government that unwisely subsidizes corn and soybean for ethanol production and factory farming.

DiYers are tired of waiting for someone else to fix the problem. Seven million diesel cars are on the road now and there are 15.5 million diesel shipping industry trucks. The sooner we increase the consumer demand for biofuel, the sooner we will get small-scale algae oil companies popping up locally, according to Algae Industry Magazine. In the meantime, waste oil or rapeseed and sunflower oil, grown on land formerly used for animal feed crops, ethanol or HFCS crops, are good alternatives to dirty (environmentally and politically) fossil fuel.

Digital Journal talked to Kim Kellog of Hale Hill Biofuels in Portland, Connecticut. Founder Ric Hosley first started using biofuels for his own farm equipment, and in 2005 began distributing biodiesel fuel to homeowners, businesses and municipalities. Since then Hale Hill has helped reduce carbon emissions by over 22,500 tons. According to Kellog,

Ethanol is an unsustainable, energy-heavy industry that we do not condone. We sell biodiesel in a combination of blends for home heat, on road and off road diesel engine fuel use. We buy B99 from a local producer in New Haven who processes WVO (used vegetable oil) or waste grease and some soy beans. Since we learned years ago of the algae model, we have been hopeful this technology will be useful. We know this is not the answer to our energy problems, but we think biodiesel is an important bridge to the future.

Get Ready For the Future

Let’s face it; we don’t have any political power. Our votes don’t matter. But we do have power as consumers. Making your next vehicle purchase a diesel engine will put you in a position to switch to cleaner burner fuels. Twenty-eight percent of total energy consumption in the United States is used to move people and goods, and diesel shipping makes us about twenty-two percent of the total transportation use. Every year more than 40,000 billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed in the United States. There is a huge opportunity for painless consumer-led improvement here with a switch to biodiesel. Consumers can keep their current diesel vehicles. When it develops, the algae oil industry will be able to use crude oil refineries and in-place supply system to bring their product to market.

We can petition and protest all day long and still never get the status quo power brokers to try to wean the public off fossil fuels. In the long run, the collective efforts of individuals will be more effective in fighting pollution than any government regulations, which are ineffective at best, corrupt at worst.
Go diesel, go green and drive safely.

This article is part of the Do-it-Yourself Political Change Series on Digital  Journal. Victoria N. Alexander is the author of Locus Amoenus, a 9/11 political satire novel about the decline of America.

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