03/29/2004: "The Goodness of Grease"
|AMP|#160;|AMP|#160;I've always been a car nut. In highschool I could tell you the engine size and output of just about every vehicle on the road. Although not quite as obsessed anymore, I've retained a broad interest in automobiles, and still harbour a vast amount of vehicular trivia. Over the past couple of years I've been trying to reform my ways, redirecting my interest and hobbies down avenues that are more socially and environmentally aware and responsible. To that end, I ditched my subscriptions to Road & Track and Sport Compact Car, and instead trained my enthusiasm on electric vehicles, hybrids, and other alternatively powered vehicles. As it turns out, my pursuit of the ultimate eco-vehicle has brought me pretty much full circle, back to mainstream production automobiles.
What I am after now is a vehicle with a diesel engine instead of a gasoline engine. While this may seem like a step backwards, what with abandoning a fairly clean-burning gas engine for a sooty, smelly diesel, it can actually be a step forwards. The key is not what technology lies in the hood, but what fuel you put into it. There are two closely-related but very different alternative diesel fuels gradually becoming more mainstream that can really put the entire automotive energy market on its head in North America, if not worldwide. Astonishingly, it relies very little (if at all) on imported petrochemical energy, and provides a boon industry to farmers across the continent. I am talking about biodiesel and Straight Vegetable Oil, otherwise known as SVO.
You may have heard of biodiesel before. It is a diesel fuel that is produced from the transesterification of vegetable oil. Don't ask me what that means - I'm not a chemist. What I can tell you is that you can process vegetable oil, either new or used, into a non-toxic, biodegradable, high quality petrodiesel substitute that can be used in existing diesel engines with very minor modifications. The pure stuff is called Biodiesel 100, or B100. What is going to be more common in the next couple of years are petrodiesel/biodiesel blends such as B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% petrodiesel), which essentially gives you more bang for your petrochemical buck, while at the same time allowing existing diesels to run a blended mixture with zero modifications, and burn much cleaner to boot.
There are only three problems with biodiesel. First, if you use it in pure form (B100), it has a tendency to gel at low temperatures. Even petrodiesel does this, but at a much lower temperature than B100 does. Using a blend such as B20 (20% biodiesel) gets around this by lowering the gel point, but you're still using 80% petrodiesel in the process. The second problem is that B100 requires some modifications to a diesel before it can be safely used. B100 may erode some types of rubber found in hoses, seals, and gaskets, requiring them to be replaced with a material called Viton, which is compatible with B100. It's a small detail, but an important one. Lastly, the problem with biodiesel of any blend is that of availability: it's not widely distributed. Yet. Given time, you'll see B5, B20, B50 and even B100 at your local diesel bar, but as of this moment finding biodiesel at a pump is pretty rare. You try making your own at home by following Mike Pelly's biodiesel method, and you can even purchase a biodiesel processor to use at home, but for most people that is a step or three beyond their means and/or their interest.
While biodiesel is extremely promising, the related fuel that I find really exciting is Straight Vegetable Oil, otherwise known as SVO, and its cousin Waste Vegetable Oil, or WVO. A little-known fact is that the original diesel engine was run on peanut oil, and sure enough today's diesels can run on vegetable oil just as easily as they can run on petrodiesel - with some modifications, of course. The only thing preventing you from pouring a bottle of Mazola into your diesel tank is viscosity, or how thick the oil is. Vegetable oil is considerably thicker than petrodiesel, which is a problem when the engine tries to spray the fuel in a fine mist to allow it to burn properly. The solution is to heat the vegetable oil up to 160°F (70°C) to bring the viscosity down to a point equivalent to that of petrodiesel. In warm climates like Arizona this is easy, but in Canada, this typically requires either an expensive array of heated fuel system components, or a dual-tank system that allows you to start cold on petrodiesel (or a biodiesel blend), and use the waste heat from the engine to heat up the oil, and then switch over to burning oil for the duration of your drive. Of course, you also have to shut down on petrodiesel, otherwise your engine's fuel system will be clogged the next morning with solid vegetable oil.
Regardless of these extra steps and tinkering required by SVO/WVO, I believe it's the perfect fuel. Why? Well, like biodiesel, it's plentiful, renewable, has zero carbon cost (a real boon to meeting our Kyoto Protocol mandate), and can be implemented with simple technology available right now at any auto parts store. What vegetable oil has over biodiesel is cost. Specifically, WVO can generally be had for free, if you look in the right spot. Restaurants with deep fryers must continually change out their oil and pay to have the waste oil hauled away. Generally no one has any issue with someone wanting to take a few pails-full of grease home with them, so all you need do is find a restaurant or two in your area that has good-quality waste oil, establish a relationship with the owner or manager, and you've got yourself a lifetime supply of free diesel fuel. What could be better? Your tailpipe will even smell of French fries or Chinese food, much nicer than the awful stench petrodiesel produces.
Unfortunately, the one hole in this entire plan is that getting a diesel vehicle isn't easy. Not being a resident of Europe or Asia, wanting a diesel really puts me in rarefied territory here in North America. While Mercedes-Benz will be both reintroducing a diesel in their lineup again and introducing the new-to-North America smart fortwo cdi diesel, there is pretty much zero choice beyond getting a Volkswagen TDI or a domestic diesel truck. I should clarify that those are your only choices if you are wishing to buy new. If you don't mind an older vehicle, there is much more choice in diesels, but you have to go back to the 1980's to find it. After the 2nd energy crisis of the late 1970's, automakers started spewing out diesel options, some of which can still be found on the road today. Of course, you'll be buying a 20-year-old vehicle with 20-year-old diesel technology, so choose carefully.
No matter which way you slice it, getting a diesel vehicle just makes sense now. The fuel of the future isn't hydrogen, it's vegetable oil and biodiesel. No other fuel can come close to having the infrastructure already in place, and having the technology to use in already on the road. With North Americans fattening themselves up at an alarming pace, I can only assume that WVO will be plentiful for a good long time as well. So, go do the biodiesel industry a favour and eat something deep-fried today.