Biodiesel Man

One local man dreams of the day that gas-powered engines are a thing of the past

Pack it in, America. The fast food you love may be your salvation.

Meet Pablo Boutiet, known to most as Pablo Von Crunchnoble, or simply, Pablo.

Inventor, devotee of psychedelics, environmental crusader, Pablo is also one of a growing number of innovators who drives his automobile on fuel that's full of cholesterol but free of almost all noxious emissions: biodiesel.

Pablo's fuel is similar to the biodiesel powering a growing number of American federal fleets, from the United States Postal Service to NASA. A product of straight vegetable oil, it fires an essentially unconverted diesel engine. The only modification recommended to start using biodiesel is changing the fuel filter, to catch all the carbon deposits left by petroleum diesel that the new, cleaner fuel washes loose.

But unlike NASA's biodiesel, Pablo's fuel is created in a plastic bucket in his modest-sized yard out of used Tokyo Express cooking grease. When Pablo's spacemobile--a Mercedes station wagon--takes off, it is unceremonious, leaving no mark on the earth but the waft of tempura.

Of course, it wasn't always so neat; he had to learn to be choosy about his main ingredient. The first places he tried were McDonalds and Shari's First Avenue Drive-In, the closest restaurants to his Tucson home. At both places, vats of grease steamed out back, "covered with French fries and hamburger meat." He calls it "a horrible experience," but then he grins, his wild blue eyes bright behind rags of long hair. "I did find out where I could feed my cats for free."

Pablo is a vegetarian. Picture Fabio, airbrushed hunk of the romance novel, only thoroughly unwashed and with a more primitive bone structure. He never drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes. He has tremendous physical strength from harnessing the power of his muscles instead of automobiles or machinery for most of his 30-something years.

But the one thing Pablo seeks more zealously than the purity of his own body is the purification of the environment. So, anxious to get started changing the world, he filled his bucket with the meaty fluid in back of Shari's and commenced to mix biodiesel on a random recipe.

It started, and then it ran. It's still running.

A compelling reason to make biofuel is the desire to need no one. And so, like many biodiesel homebrewers, Pablo is reclusive. He hid in his home for weeks during the outbreak of SARS. He has not used a computer in many years, and he has no phone, so finding him requires going through a bit of trouble, which is probably his intention.

We'll call his street Vicious Dog Alley, because seven of the 10 properties neighboring his are protected by menacing canines. Pull up to his house, and however dainty your progress, you'll reckon with the thunder of heavy paws galloping, galloping closer, then slamming blindly against their chain-link fences.

Try to remain calm enough to jimmy open his rusty trick gate, for if you do manage to get inside, the danger is eclipsed by Pablo's kindness.

His hands rip open aloe leaves and knead the juice into the wet red wounds of his diseased Siamese. She purrs at his fingertips, rough and familiar as her own tongue.

He has never been married and has no children. Alone for nearly four decades, his lifestyle has clearly evolved around his projects and inventions, the components of which come from the trash.

Most of it still looks like trash until you understand its place in the chain.

Solar water-harvesting pyramids spike up from the roof, dripping distilled water into bottles for Pablo to drink, or watering bowls for his chickens, or troughs irrigating small crops. The plants grown and the eggs laid will be cooked and eaten. Any oil left over will commingle with the amber-colored contribution of Tokyo Express.

His basic fuel-processing plant consists of a 50-gallon bucket of waste vegetable oil (called WVO in biofuels lingo), a white, 5-gallon bucket into which the filtered WVO is pumped or poured, and a stationary drill that spins a mixing attachment through the bucket lid once methanol and lye are added to the WVO.

The process, called transesterification, substitutes alcohol for the glycerin in a chemical reaction, leading the glycerin part of the oil to sink to the bottom, waiting for Pablo to make it into soap.

The fuel that floats to the top might be the only reason he leaves his yard at all: Spreading the gospel of biodiesel has become Pablo's reason to travel.

"It cleans the air; it cleans the skies; it even cleans the engine!" he marvels.

Pablo clamors to discuss biodiesel's potential impact on Earth with anyone who will listen. He dreams of being able to pay the fee required to log onto the enviroXchange Web site and consult one of its "supergeniuses."

"My question is called the Mexico City question: Can we fuel Mexico City (with biodiesel)? The kids right now are going to school crying and coughing. ... I'm afraid that for every 21st-century huge, Third-World city, Mexico City is the model."

Pablo recently endeavored to convince a retired engineer from the Apollo Project that biofuel made from spirulina could allow a spaceship to fuel itself in flight. The engineer, while intrigued by the water-distilling pyramids that Pablo pitched as part of the fuel scheme, was not interested in biofuel.

Pablo kept trying, though, and eventually won over one great mind in space exploration: Robert Zimmerman, science-fiction author and head of the International Mars Society.

"He was the only person interested in the Spirulina-Powered Diesel Spaceship," Pablo says with pride.

Judging from what he scribbled to Pablo on the inside cover of a book he wrote, Zimmerman was impressed by the strange tidings Pablo conjured before him.

The inscription he wrote says this: "Pablo--See you on Mars!"