Biodiesel called Florida's future fuel


Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

Take some vegetable oil, add lye and methanol, shake it up and let it settle.

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Evan Ashworth mixes components Wednesday including used peanut oil, methanol and potassium hydroxide to demonstrate how biodiesel is manufactured on a small scale.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun

Make the mixture wrong and you'll produce soap. But the right mix produces a fuel fit for use in any diesel engine, which advocates say will help free the nation from its dependence on foreign oil and clean the air.

A series of workshops held last week in Gainesville about making biodiesel - which is considerably more complicated than the simplified instructions above - are part of local efforts to promote the fuel. Biodiesel can be made on the cheap by processing waste oil from restaurants, or costs slightly more than regular diesel if bought from commercial distributors.

Advocates are betting the fluctuation of gas prices due to war and hurricanes makes the timing right for the domestically produced fuel to gain wider appeal.

"It's just not sustainable the way things are going now," said Scott Davies, a partner in a Gainesville company planning to sell biodiesel here.

That company - Freedom Fuels Inc. - is now getting the needed permits and taxes in line to sell biodiesel on a commercial basis. Another locally based group, the North Florida Biofuels Network, is teaching folks to produce biodiesel on their own and bringing together people who want to pool resources in such work.

"You can probably make this stuff for $1 a gallon if you can get free grease," said Lyle Estill, member of a biofuels co-operative in North Carolina.

The co-op, Piedmont Biofuels, is a model for efforts here. The co-op makes and sells biodiesel for its members and systems for others to produce it. Members pay $50 per year and $3.50 per gallon for fuel. The price is fairly standard for commercial biodiesel producers, as compared with diesel that currently costs up to $2.80 in Gainesville, but biodiesel offers the benefit of more steady prices.

The co-op is based in a town of 3,000 outside Raleigh yet has been able to recruit hundreds of members, said Estill, who likes biodiesel for reasons ranging from its environmental to its political benefits. He expects the fuel will do even better in Gainesville.

"This place is ripe for some sort of biodiesel," he said.

Freedom Fuels is planning to sell biodiesel locally in the next few weeks, obtaining the fuel from producers in Lakeland and Georgia. A biodiesel workshop at the Dignity Project, which fixes and donates cars to needy residents, has project members interested in producing the fuel on a commercial scale there.

The project might provide free fuel for cars that it donates or publicly sell the fuel to subsidize costs, said Kim Lapan, the group's vehicle director.

For donated cars, that would require obtaining cars with diesel engines. Just 3 percent of the cars sold in the United States last year had diesel engines, but the cars are much more prevalent overseas. DaimlerChrysler's chief executive announced at an international auto show last week the company is considering selling more diesel cars in the United States, in part because they are more efficient than vehicles with gas engines.

But there are some problems with using biodiesel in those vehicles. Pure biodiesel can thicken and clog engines in sub-freezing temperatures. While that shouldn't be a problem except for the coldest days in Gainesville, some biodiesel producers address the problem by selling a mixture with diesel. The biodiesel company of musician Willie Nelson, BioWillie, sells a 20 percent mix at pumps in Texas and other states.

And while biodiesel has environmental benefits, there are also downsides. Sierra Club officials have criticized the fuel for requiring farming that uses natural resources and dirtier fuels. Burning biodiesel produces no acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, far less human health hazards such as soot and less greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide than conventional diesel. But it actually produces more smog-causing nitrous oxide.

Biodiesel is just one of a broader group of biofuels experiencing increased interest. The Florida Department of Agriculture last week held a meeting to encourage more of the state's farmers to grow crops for biofuels. Those include ethanol, which can be produced from corn and other crops and already is a widely used additive in gasoline.

University of Florida microbiologist Lonnie Ingram attended the meeting to discuss his work developing bacteria that converts waste wood and other plant parts into ethanol.

"There's no reason we can't be the top state in biofuel production," he said. "One of the things we do well is grow plants."

But he admits making such fuels a significant portion of U.S. energy use is probably decades away. In the meantime, he said, biodiesel and other alternatives can incrementally help wean the country off foreign oil.

Local advocates are banking on Gainesville being on the leading edge of such efforts. But they concede much more must be done to cut down on energy use before the country can gain energy independence.

"This is not the solution," said Mark Robinson, a partner in Freedom Fuels. "Conservation is really the main thing - but this is something we've got to do first."

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com

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