Cooking oil cars turn the table on high fuel prices

A growing number of Americans are setting up mini-refineries in their homes to produce biodiesel, a fuel made from waste cooking oil which is cleaner and cheaper than the petrol sold in gas stations.

The sky-high price of crude oil is scaring everyone.

Biodiesel has Hollywood backers like actress Julia Roberts and Morgan Freeman, is sung about by country star Willie Nelson but also meets the political correctness of the American right-wing which has made the campaign against imported oil a mantra.

”It’s better for the engine, way better for the environment, it’s cheaper, but it depends how you price your labour,” said Dan Goodman, an entrepreneur in residence at the University of Maryland Business School who runs his Mercedes on biodiesel.

There are two ways to get on the biodiesel bandwagon, Goodman said.

Either you change the engine and just put in waste oil, which would not be strictly legal in the United States, or you can modify the fuel into biodiesel, which is legal and works in any diesel car.

Biodiesel plants are a boom industry in America, but thousands now make fuel in their garages from the oil left after frying french fries or scrounging around restaurants and food factories.

”It’s easy when you know how to do it,” Goodman said, though he warned that the process ”can be hazardous”, since it involves flammable products and caustic vapours that require a well-ventilated production site.

”You filter the waste fried oil to remove the glycerol, the most sticky part, and then replace it with an alcohol molecule [methanol] and lye [caustic soda],” he said.

Goodman makes about 1 135 litres of biodiesel a day on a farm in Maryland, where his helper Matt Geiger twice a week brings huge jerricans of the precious ”yellow grease” he collects from restaurants in the towns of Olney and College Park.

The homemade fuel keeps 15 school buses running in the area, Goodman said.

Most biodiesel fans have organised into cooperatives that make biofuel from soy oil instead of used cooking oil. The groups have been growing over the past few years, but they still represent a minuscule part of the US energy sector.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel production has tripled since 2004 to 280-million litres last year. This year, it is expected to double to 56-million litres.

In comparison, US consumption of traditional diesel fuel extracted from crude oil stands at 227-billion litres per year.

But biodiesel still has country music legend Willie Nelson singing its praises.

The 73-year-old songwriter has launched his own brand of the fuel, dubbed ”BioWillie,” and strongly believes that biodiesel is the way to go.

Nelson and Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman are on the board of a company called Earth Biofuels which has signed up Roberts to help promote the cooking oil fuel.

”The idea is to do something useful towards eliminating America’s dependence on foreign oil. Consumers can now ensure that their fuel money stays in America rather than going overseas,” Nelson wrote on his website. – AFP



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