Portraits in Biodiesel

Meet Tucsonans working with plants and oil from restaurants to end our dependence on fossil fuels

The sticker on the big Dodge pickup's back window reads like an easy, if somewhat inscrutable, recipe for an alternate reality: "Biodiesel: No War Required."

Its placement on what conventional wisdom would suggest is a gas-guzzling, black-smoke-spewing, oversized diesel truck is meant to be a bit jarring, one assumes. But this truck, and the four or five other diesel-engine-powered vehicles parked in this tidy westside yard, would beat any Prius or hybrid Civic in conserving nonrenewable resources, and, as the sticker attests, saving the world from ourselves.

It's a scene more typical of Europe, where the compression-ignition engine enjoys much more renown than it does in the United States; here, the diesel as a consumer product has long been a kind of second-class crank's hobby.

But there's something attractive, cozy even, about getting off the grid, if only a few steps. It could be a Western thing, self-reliance and rugged individualism and all that. Mike and Steve Fisher make it look easy. In a small shed in the back of Steve's modest home, the brothers, along with friend Ted Bednar III and nephew Travis Fisher, are brewing up about 1,000 gallons of golden biodiesel every month, in the process eliminating the need for eight Americans to use polluting, nonrenewable fossil fuels in their vehicles. The feedstock (in biodiesel parlance, feedstock is the term used for the raw material out of which the fuel is made) is a waste product, used yellow grease recycled from Tucson culinary institution Lucky Wishbone, along with local KFCs and other willing restaurants.

The Fisher co-op, called Southwest Biofuels, LLC, is one of several in the Tucson area, where biodiesel has lately found a comfortable foothold among researchers, entrepreneurs and citizen advocates who consider the increased production, sale and use of this renewable and clean fuel a wide and clear avenue toward energy independence, environmental cleanliness and local economic autonomy. It seems a tall order for a little vegetable oil mixed with methanol and lye, but spend a little time among Tucson's burgeoning biodiesel community, and it's difficult not to come away impressed--and even hopeful.

The biodiesel creation story is a typically American one in that at its core, it is the tale of an alternate history that might have been.

Doomed German inventor Rudolf Diesel came up with the idea for the engine that bears his name in the 1890s after studying thermodynamics. The diesel works differently from a gasoline engine, in which fuel is mixed with air and then ignited by a spark plug before entering the combustion chamber. The diesel engine compresses the air in the combustion chamber, heating it to high temperatures to ignite the fuel as it's injected, basically using more of the engine's heat more efficiently. Any vegetable- or fat-based oil can be used to fuel the diesel engine, and so the story goes, at the 1900 World's Fair, the diesel engine was demonstrated using peanut oil for fuel.

In 1913, after years of depression and business troubles, Rudolf Diesel disappeared from a ship while crossing the English Channel. Most historians believe he committed suicide, but the Internet is rife with suggestions that the then-ascendant oil and coal barons, or possibly geopolitics, had something to do with his mysterious death.

"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," goes a 1912 statement attributed to Diesel, "but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time."

If the activity in Tucson is an indicator, vegetable oils as engine fuels may be on the verge of finally having their day in the sun.

It certainly appears that way out at the Fishers' co-op, anyway. A few years ago, as Mike Fisher, a self-described "UNIX geek" in his 40s, tells it, a friend bought a diesel vehicle and told Mike he planned to run it with biodiesel. Mike admits he didn't know a thing about it, and dismissed his friend with a common epithet combining the F-word with the nearly equally nasty "hippie."

But Mike started looking into the concept. The world kept turning, and American soldiers kept dying in the Middle East, and more and more scientists kept agreeing that global warming was indeed a reality. At some point, he said, "I can do this."

Two years and a $5,000 investment later, and the Fishers and their friends are off fossil fuels for good, and they seem to be having a good time doing it.

"It's the right thing to do," says Ted Bednar, who runs the big Dodge work truck he uses for his construction jobs on biodiesel made in the Fishers' shed laboratory. "Plus, I kind of feel like a pirate." Bednar has even been able to proselytize the use of biodiesel among his contractor colleagues, and he sells leftover glycerin, a nontoxic byproduct of the fuel production, to concrete companies to use as a form-release oil. It's also a good weed killer and degreaser, he says.

Steve Fisher, the owner of a drum-tuning business, works out of his home, so he's able to watch the production constantly. Still, Mike has gotten so into the process that he has cut down his hours at work to spend more time making biodiesel.

"I am denying terrorist funding one gallon at a time," he says.

"We are not just reducing emissions," Steve adds. "We have cut greenhouse gases out of the picture. Plus, we are not counting on any other country for our fuel--it's amazing the kind of acceptance this gets across the political boundaries."

Biodiesel is produced from oil, whether it be recycled waste or newly harvested soybean oil, through a process called transesterification, whereby glycerin is removed from the oil by combining it with an alcohol. After the fuel is processed, it can be mixed with regular diesel to create blends, or it can be used straight up, so to speak. It doesn't smell or get you high, and it has the toxicity of table salt. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved biodiesel as a legal motor fuel, and it's the only biofuel to have fully completed the health-effects testing required by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.

Some diesel enthusiasts, following Rudolf's early example, skip the transesterification process altogether and run their vehicles on straight vegetable oil, called SVO or WVO (for waste vegetable oil). This requires some aftermarket additions to the engine, while processed biodiesel can be used with little or no engine modification.

One of the challenges with using pure biodiesel is that it thickens at low temperatures, so in colder climes, it must be blended. That's not much of a problem in Tucson.

"Biodiesel is a natural alternative for a lot of fleets in the Southwest," says Colleen Crowninshield, Southern Arizona's alternative-fuels guru and head of the Pima Association of Governments' Clean Cities Coalition. Tucson was recently included in a $3.5 million grant program that will install six biodiesel blending terminals at existing petroleum facilities in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Waste vegetable oil, most of it from restaurants, is a problem all over the nation, if not the world. Some 70 percent of the sanitary sewer overflows in Pima County are caused by grease buildup in the system, says Crowninshield. With no local government-sponsored mechanism to recycle used yellow grease, much of it goes to landfills or is purchased by rendering plants. According to an Arizona Department of Environmental Quality memo obtained from PAG, just one such plant, Tucson Tallow, renders some 100,000 pounds of waste oils every week--about 14,000 gallons. The rendered material is sold as feed supplement for livestock in Sonora and elsewhere.

Mike Kazz wants that used grease to stay in Tucson and become biodiesel. He's the founder of Grecycle, a company that hopes soon to turn what small co-ops like the Fishers' are doing into a commercial enterprise.

A 40-year-old adjunct researcher with the University of Arizona, Kazz envisions a day when there are grease-recycling receptacles set up all over town. The two years of running his pilot project (in association with PAG) to collect used oil from residents after Thanksgiving has convinced Kazz that there is a glut of yellow oil in Tucson; last year, the program collected 1,400 pounds of used grease in just six hours.

He's already convinced about 100 of the approximately 3,000 area restaurants to become part of his "renewable fuels network," and he makes biodiesel from the waste product he collects at a one-tenth-scale plant at a university facility. In the near future, Kazz says, Grecycle will move into a 30-acre eco-industrial park on the southside and begin making about a million gallons of biodiesel a year, all of it from our chimichanga and corn-dog runoff.

The Grecycle business plan has all of that fuel--which has already been certified by the National Biodiesel Board, an industry group which promotes biodiesel awareness and monitors quality--being sold locally through the retail market, creating something of a closed economic system: We use the fuel that comes from the grease that cooks the food, and on and on ...

"What I like about biodiesel and biofuels in general is that there's a place for the small guy," Kazz says. "It provides a route for rural development, which is really important to Arizona."

That sentiment, echoed again and again by Tucson's biodiesel adherents, is a reminder of the Jeffersonian self-determination that has taken over much of the green movement since globalization became a favorite leftist target. It reminds one of the similar locals-only trend among gourmands. It also brings up what used to be a dirty secret in the biofuels industry, but has of late gotten a good deal of press, as the industry as a whole has become more mainstream and attractive to investors.

Most biofuels, biodiesel included, are made in the Midwest from decidedly Midwestern crops--corn for ethanol, and soy beans for biodiesel. (The National Biodiesel Board, located in Missouri, was founded and funded by the soybean industry, and there are many soybean mavens among the board's voting members.) Generally, the rail cars or trucks used to bring the fuel to, say, the Southwest, are not run on alternative fuels. There's a loss there for the purist, to say the least. Then there's the somewhat dubious trade-off of using food products like corn and soybeans to make fuel, not to mention that for any biofuel to be economically viable on the international stage, vast tracts of land would have to be used to grow the current popular feedstocks. Then there's the market: More demand for a corn-based biofuel like ethanol increases the world price of corn, and all of a sudden, corn in Mexico is too expensive to make tortillas, a family staple. That's the world we live in.

These consumer-morality conundrums seem to be driving entrepreneurs and researchers like Tim Kerkman and Andrea Mathias of Tucson-based Eco-Sol. Kerkman, a 39-year-old former Army National Guard helicopter pilot, could be on the verge of a feedstock revolution. It's hard to tell; he doesn't really like to talk about it.

He will say that Eco-Sol is working at least two test plots in Southern Arizona to develop an arid land plant that has both high oil content, for biodiesel, and a lot of starch, for ethanol or butanol production. Could this be the savior plant that will fuel the desert cities, allowing us to avoid becoming latter-day Hohokam?

Whether or not the mystery plant pans out, Kerkman says Eco-Sol is committed to a local, decentralized fuel market.

"If you're making biodiesel from soy oil, and it's coming from Iowa, that's such a long way to truck stuff," he says. "If you can find something local, it makes a lot of sense."

Kerkman got some of his ideas about decentralization and closed systems hovering in his helicopter over Third World villages in places like Nicaragua. He flew down there a few years back with the Guard to help with hurricane cleanup. He's been interested in plants since he was a boy, and in Central America, he noticed that there were a lot of native plants with high oil contents growing in the hinterlands. He also noticed that the isolated villagers had many fuel-related problems, from a lack of diesel needed to run an irrigation pump or a generator, to the lack of petroleum needed to take goods to market. It occurred to Kerkman that one could serve the other. This revelation led to Eco-Sol's other project--using cottonseed, a byproduct of one of Arizona's Famous Five Cs, as a feedstock for biodiesel.

But this is not biodiesel for the consumer retail market. Rather, it'll be used primarily off road, by the cotton farmers themselves, to run tractors, generators, irrigation pumps and the like. The process will also add value to cottonseed through the creation of a seed meal for the dairy industry.

A byproduct of the agriculture industry is used to create a feedstock that makes a fuel that runs the agriculture industry. There's a kind of recycled beauty in that.

Mathias, a 35-year-old post-doctoral research associate with UA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who is working with Eco-Sol, said that this kind of research is growing more popular in academia, across the curriculum.

"These are very interesting times," she says. "Global demand for energy and food is going to double in the next 50 years, so we have to find a solution. I feel like I can contribute."

For most of us, Kerkman's kind of no-footprint purity is at least a few years away, and few of us have the energy to do what the boys at the Fisher co-op are doing. But Tucson's use of biodiesel has grown mightily in the last two years, and that demand has created an accessible, if relatively small, niche for the average consumer.

For the past several months, thanks in large part to Jim Lombard of Roadrunner Biodiesel, any diesel vehicle owner who can make it to midtown can fill up with 100 percent biodiesel at Go Go Mart, 2200 E. Broadway Blvd., where biodiesel shipped in from Iowa by Lombard has replaced regular diesel pumps. Biodiesel is also sold at the pump at Arizona Petroleum Products, 1015 S. Cherry Ave.

Go Go Mart manager Jonathan LaRue said that sales of the fuel have been up and down since he introduced it in November 2006, after being approached by Lombard with the idea.

"We'll go from selling 40 gallons one day to selling 160 gallons the next," he says. The main determinant of those numbers is the relative price of regular diesel. When diesel goes up, LaRue says, biodiesel sells.

Lombard, who is a biofuels "jobber" (a word used for his counterparts in the petroleum industry), only handles B100, pure biodiesel. "We are pushing the leading edge of pure alternative fuels into the Tucson area," he says.

At last count, there were about 10,000 diesel users in Tucson, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation vehicle registry. That's a population Lombard wants to serve with biodiesel. He hopes to get at least two more commercial stations to carry his product, with a long-term goal of getting biodiesel into 10 to 15 local stations. He says that gas-station owners can easily replace their rarely used midgrade fuel pumps with biodiesel and experience increased sales.

His plans are not far-fetched. Something similar is already happening in Portland, Ore. Municipal fleets in that city recently switched to running B99--negligibly different from B100--and seven stations are selling B100, with another eight carrying various blends.

Last summer, the city of Tucson began a pilot project to run a majority of its diesel fleet on B20--20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent regular diesel. Other local fleets using similar blends include those from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Raytheon, Tucson Electric Power and Sabino Canyon Tours.

Lombard's family, which includes a few teenagers, not long ago got rid of its last petroleum-powered car. Lombard himself drives a diesel Volkswagen Beetle with nothing but B100 in the tank. Interestingly, Lombard's father (also his current business partner) worked for Exxon his entire career. Dinnertime conversations often revolved around what was happening in the oil industry.

"The Exxon Valdez spill (in Alaska in 1989) really affected him, and he retired a few years after that," Lombard says. "I'm not trying to reverse any sins of the past or anything, but we need to move on to the next thing, and we are going in the right direction--using all the human intelligence that we can to better manage the planet's energy sources."

A geologist who worked in resource extraction, Lombard got started in biodiesel a few years ago working with 32-year-old Megan Hartman.

Hartman, who nearly everybody in the Southern Arizona biodiesel community credits with an infectious enthusiasm that has spread the biodiesel gospel, runs The Station, in Oracle, where she sells B85 from a retro pump, along with coffee, natural foods, art and a "community vibe." There's an eclectic shelf of used books for sale, Internet access and a room in the back where locals teach classes. Every Saturday, there's a farmers' market. "A destination and a point of departure"--so goes The Station's motto.

She moved out here from Maine about four years ago after dropping out of a graduate program in clinical psychology. After a friend in Maine introduced her to biodiesel, she started homebrewing in her back yard. One weekend, a large stack of homework came up against her desire to get her hands dirty making biodiesel, and the biodiesel won.

Arriving in Tucson, warm for the first time in her life and excited that she could now mix higher than the B50 grade dictated by the cold of Maine, Hartman found there was only one place in the state back then to get biodiesel, and that was in Phoenix. She started thinking about trying to sell biodiesel herself (despite having neither capital nor business experience), and a few months later, The Station opened.

She doesn't make a lot of money on the biodiesel; she sells about 1,000 gallons every three months, depending on the price of regular diesel--but that's not really the point.

"When I decided to quit grad school, I asked myself: What's the point of trying to help people adjust to an environment that is so crazy?" Hartman says. Instead, she decided to focus on creating "little pockets of sanity" in the world, places where people can live out their ideas and passions.

And it is this kind of mildly utopian vision, the 21st century continuation of a sidestream of American thought and action that has always been with us, that appears to be driving local entrepreneurs and energetic advocates toward the alternate reality of "No War Required." Let's hope they get there.

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