The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time” – Rudolph Diesel, 1912
Petroleum gives my car terrible gas. Though I rarely drive her, generally opting for my super sustainable *Xtracycle, when I do fuel up, I force feed my Volvo with liquid black gold. Petroleum. That insanely valuable composite made up of ancient biomass compressed for millennia, vaporized in mere moments, and wreaking havoc on our entire globosphere.
Neither of us are particularly happy about the situation. She, my trusty wagon, coughs up a steady stream of noxious fumes in protest, while I stand cringing at the pump, hating to contribute even one cent to the war machine.
And dreaming of the day when I can fill my tank with…..canola oil?
The idea of using vegetable oil as a petro-alternative dates back as far as the 1890s, when Rudolph Diesel designed his eponymous engine to run on peanut oil. His vision of an equitable fuel source (i.e. readily available for the agro-working class) was unfortunately thwarted by the advent of cheap petroleum. An era now clearly of the past…
While at the time, Diesel’s dream of vegetable fuel had more to do with socioeconomic factors, renewed interest in biodiesel currently centers on its environmental and political implications. Biodiesel is a much cleaner burning fuel than petroleum: 100 percent lower in sulfur, 47 percent lower in particulate matter, 85 percent fewer hydrocarbons, 48 percent less Carbon Monoxide, and 78 percent less Carbon Dioxide (on a fuel-cycle analysis, one of the biggest greenhouse gas offenders).
Biodiesel is also produced right here on the home front, reducing our need to “protect foreign investments.”
Too good to be true? Biodiesel certainly has its nay sayers, citing a slight increase in nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx) and arguing that a petrol to biofuel switch would require prohibitive amounts of farmland to grow the fuel stock. To which advocates respond:
• The technology exists, and is improving, to reduce NOx dramatically – catalyst systems, fuel additives and other technologies currently under development;
• There are biofuel crops less land intensive than soy – mustard, algae, canola, AND used cooking oil.
And as Joe Gershen, president of L.A. Biofuel, frequently points out, replacing all petroleum with a single alternative is unrealistic. We need a combination of approaches – hybrids, (look for plug-in models) electric, perhaps someday hydrogen….how about better public transportation, and more bicycle commuting? Biofuels are simply one of several solutions, and available now.
Though access isn’t yet as easy as fueling up at a local pump, there is nonetheless a steady, growing movement of avid grease guzzlers.
Phat phuel on the rise
Frank Angiuli, founder of Natural High Lifestyles on Main Street, fills up on B20 (a biodiesel blend) at a truck stop in Cudahy. As the visionary behind a line of stylish sustainable clothing, it’s no surprise that Frank embraced renewables for fuel as well as fashion.
Much closer to home than Cudahy, there is the home delivery option, 55 gallon drums of grease deposited right at your doorstep. (See labiofuel.com for more info.)
And hot off the fryer: Biofuel advocate Colette Brooks, seeing an immediate need for easier access, mobilized a group of consumers to start an L.A. Biodiesel Cooperative (biodiesel-coop.org). Officially opened just a few weeks ago, this “biodiesel purchasing cooperative” provides members with a mobile fueling station, currently located on Culver Boulevard, just north of the 90.
But when, I wonder, will I be able to fill up at the corner store?
Santa Monica to chew the phat
Fortunately, while I’ve been day-dreaming, others have been scheming to make a local pump a reality. Joe Gershen, also the director of sustainable energy non-profit Green Depot, has been developing an ambitious plan for a local Sustainable Energy Center/Biofuel Station in Santa Monica. In addition to the first west side public pump, the center would offer educational resources on renewable energy – workshops and internships for students, meetings, demos on solar, wind, and other renewable technologies, etc.
Local high school students have jumped on the idea. Members of the Crossroads School Student Environmental Alliance (S.E.A.) club banded together to discuss forming a “biofuel alliance” made up of other regional high schools. S.E.A. club students recently drafted a petition that they are circulating to other schools, gathering support for the Energy Center proposal that Green Depot will bring before Santa Monica City Council on January 24. Residents interested in learning more about the plan can contact Green Depot directly at greendepot.org.
Having already made the switch to B20 for its municipal fleet, Santa Monica seems a logical place for Green Depot to find a receptive audience. If the proposal generates enough interest, and Green Depot can secure a suitable location and funding, I will finally motivate myself to sell the wagon and find a used diesel.
In the meantime, I’ll continue relying on my Xtracycle as my primary transport– strong java and fair trade chocolate are the only fuels necessary to power my pedals.
*The uber-bicycle: see xtracycle.com