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Suquamish man's fuel alternative is only $1.50 per gallon

SUQUAMISH — Mike Howell drives a Mercedes. It’s green. It’s old. And it only costs $1.50 per gallon to fill.

In a time when gas is more than $4.30 per gallon — diesel almost $5 — more people are looking for alternatives.

Howell, a Suquamish resident, might have found it — in kitchen grease.

From fish and chips fry tubs to his gas tank, he collects used vegetable oil from local restaurants and turns it into biodeisel to fuel his family’s two cars.

“Biodiesel fuels the same as diesel, you can mix the two all you want,” said the 47-year-old, who works as an engineer in Seattle. “You could run on straight vegetable oil. Diesel motors are made to run on oil, not refined diesel.”

No official statistics are out just yet on the number of individuals who use biodiesel, said Nikola Davidson, director of the Northwest Biofuels Assocation, who also serves on the board of the Northwest Biodiesel Network. However, according to the National Biodiesel Board’s (NBB) Web site, there are more than 30 biodiesel distribution companies listed in Washington. This is up almost 50 percent from the 17 NBB listed in 2005. This number doesn’t take into account the rise in individual homebrewers or cooperatives.

“Those who are buying (biodiesel) are willing to pay more for it because they feel they are doing their part in reducing their carbon footprint,” Davidson said, adding biodiesel reduces greenhouse gases by 78 percent when using local feedstock and almost 100 percent by using used kitchen oil, like Howell’s operation.

Currently biodiesel sells for $5.72 a gallon at Bainbridge Island’s Quality Auto Service — the closest biodiesel distributor to the North End.

Owner Dave Randall sells about 250 gallons each week even though it is currently about 85 cents more than regular petroleum diesel.

“People buy not only to reduce their carbon footprint but also because biodiesel gives better mileage and has a lot more thermal efficiency,” he said.

For homebrew gurus, however, making biodiesel can be as inexpensive as $1 per gallon, said Lyle Rudensey, owner of BioLyle’s Biodiesel Workshop, LLC in Seattle.

“When people find out they can make their own for a buck a gallon they get pretty excited,” he said.

How it works

Turning used vegetable oil into biodiesel isn’t too complicated. It’s worth the effort, Howell said, because it’s cheaper and it burns hotter and cleaner than the petroleum diesel at gas stations.

“Biodiesel is essentially de-fatted oil,” said Howell, who belongs to a three-person cooperative that collects grease and takes it to a processing plant in Arlington.

The process, referred to scientifically as transesterification, starts once the waste oil is filtered to remove any leftover food. From there it’s about a 10-step chemistry process.

“You take the oil and add methanol and lye. When you heat the mixture glycerin attaches to the fat and separates from the oil molecule,” he said. The byproduct, glycerine can then be used to make soap — a completely green operation.

Methanol is the only cost to biodiesel brewers.

Rudensey said currently a 55 gallon drum of methanol costs about $4.30 a gallon.

“You could make 225 gallons of biodiesel with 55 gallons of methanol. I typically process 50 gallons of oil at a time, using 11 gallons of methanol, and getting back about 45 gallons of biodiesel,” he said.

Most biodiesel Web sites have a step-by-step guide to making the fuel at home.

It’s a competitive market

Although restaurant owners used to pay to dispose of their used oil, today biodiesel processing companies pay owners to collect it.

It is rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a contract with a processing company, Howell said, who personally didn’t reveal any of his local sources to avoid competition from other grease collectors.

Limited resources aren’t only in the restaurant business.

Davidson said there are biodiesel producers who make and sell locally but there are others who export to Europe.

“Because the dollar is so weak and Europeans are accustomed paying $11 to $12 dollars per gallon it’s easier to sell to the European market and make more money,” she said. “I think people are frustrated by that. They would love to see it all to stay locally but I think people feel they need to weather this (economic) storm and feel they need to export. We, of course, would love to see it all stay here but the economy forces change.”

Problems with biodiesel

Here in the Northwest, our winters have long, drawn out periods of cold weather.

“The problems with grease is it has a high gel point, if it gets below 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) it can turn into a semi solid,” Howell said.

In colder regions it is necessary to install a fuel warmer to prevent this from happening or mix with more petroleum diesel, which has a lower gel point, Davidson said.

When converting diesel engines to biodiesel, there is also a risk of clogging filters, she said.

“Biodiesel acts as a solvent, which cleans out your engine, which is good but it can clog your filter,” she said. “This is especially true with older diesel cars you are trying to convert. If you buy a brand new diesel car off the lot there won’t be any sediment build up that will clog the filter.”

Howell said he replaced multiple filters when he first converted his cars to biodiesel.

“You can expect to replace five to six fuel filters just to start,” he said. “But the risk is worth it to me for the efficiency and cost.”

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