Thursday, December 22, 2005

Is Biodiesel Righteous?

America is the mobile society. We love to ramble. We got songs, movies, legends. You pretty much had to be a wanderer to end up in America voluntarily. Many of the Native American tribes were at least semi-nomadic. Also, our nation is vast. All of these things have lent themselves to the development of a mobile mentality. “Watch the police and the tax man miss me—I’m MOBILE!” the song says.
When we talk about appropriate technology, sustainability, lightening our pressure on the Earth, one of the first things we talk about is how to get around, despite the fact that how we stay put and meet our needs is far more important than how we get around. Our hypermobility will probably be one of the first things to go with Peak Oil, or any concerted effort to create a sustainable human society (whichever comes first), and it will almost certainly correspond with increased health of the human organism, but more of that anon.
I rely on beans for my mobility. No really, I do. I love beans. The two primary ways that I use beans for a transportation power source are that I use pinto beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, refried beans, soy beans, red beans or whatever you got to power my bicycle, and I use genetically modified soy beans to power my biodiesel pickup truck. Now, it is true that I actually put a lot of fuel into the engines of both my bicycle and my truck that is not derived from beans, but beans will stand as the representative of organic fuel source.

First, the truck: Is Biodiesel Righteous?

One day, about four years ago now, I was working at the Arcata Community Recycling Center, known locally as the Acey-Arcy (ACRC). This was a day job while I worked on my Masters degree at Humboldt State University. I was schlepping green glass to the green glass bin, and aluminum to the aluminum hopper. I was weighing and paying, directing traffic and generally carrying on. It was a Saturday, and we were plenty busy. Just as we got totally slammed, my beautiful accomplice in eco-living drove up in a beat to hell Isuzu pickup truck with a nervous undergrad from Humboldt State in the passenger seat. It was a very sorry looking truck, and it sounded worse than it looked. Smoke curled from its tailpipe, and the diesel motor rattled like catastrophic mechanical failure could occur at any moment. You couldn’t see anything in the mirrors when the motor was at idle, because they shook so much that everything was a blur. (Still do!) My statuesque Gaia goddess came over to where I was working, looking cute with her hair all piled up on the top of her head and a faded pair of denim overalls on.
“Do you think we should buy it?” she asked. “We’ve been wanting a diesel pickup to run on biodiesel. They are hard to come by. He wants $700.00”
I was busy and a little frazzled. The other guy on duty, Jay of the monodreadlock, was stuck at the aluminum hopper with some frat boy who had brought in a semester’s worth of Bud cans. Meanwhile the line at the scale was backing up. At the same time, the sight of my sweetie in overalls was making me realize how much I enjoyed being other places than here.
“You’re gonna have to decide,” I said. “If it drives o.k., offer him $500.00 If he won’t go for it, we can walk away.”
I did go over and shake the kid’s hand and try to do the guy thing about motors, but he clearly knew nothing. I gave my sweetie a lingering kiss and she gave me an affectionate swat on the buttocks. Reluctantly, I returned to the din and bustle of the Acey-Arcy on a Saturday, immediately picking up a tote that spilled sour milk all down my front as I watched the truck drive away.
Several weary hours later, as I coasted my Bridgestone MB-3 mountain bike (a $8 Acey-Arcy Reuse Depot score) up the driveway, I discovered that I was the proud part owner of a beat to hell 1982 Isuzu diesel P’up. I shucked my clothes on the back porch, went into the house, took a shower, ate a wonderful repast of stir-fried vegetables, and then got very distracted by my beautiful lover, and went to sleep early.
The next day, after Meeting for Worship, I looked over this crappy beige truck. The tires were bald, the bed rusted through in several places, the windshield cracked, wheels mismatched, seat totally trashed, and the whole of the thing inside and out was filthy and grimy. She did start fairly readily, however, belching a huge cloud of stinky diesel soot, and emitting that same gnarly rattle that I’d heard the day before. I put her in reverse and rolled out of the drive. I tooled around the block, noticing a terrible skreek in the steering, and crazy howling in the front end whenever I went over a bump. I got on the highway to see what she could do. I wound that little four cylinder motor up tight, so that we were going a scathing fifty miles per. I say scathing because despite years of traveling at Mach Schnell on motorbikes, and winding high-revving motors to redline, that little buggy was maxed out at the big 50! Shimmy, shake, roar and smoke! It was exciting, I tell you. I really felt that I was taking my life into my hands. To make matters worse, the clutch slipped really bad, the whole vehicle pulled hard to the left under braking, and the cloud in the rearview mirror would have made James Bond envious.
Well, I won’t bore you with the details, but I filled the tank with biodiesel, replaced the ball joints and lubed the front end, bought four used tires, changed all fluids and filters, replaced the master cylinder and one slave cylinder, battery, glow plugs, shocks, and adjusted the cable clutch. I still have that truck, which I call the Rough-N-Ready, today. She’s approaching the 300,000 mile mark, and the engine has never been opened. She starts on a dime, runs smoothe as a top, and gets over 40 mpg. Alas, I no longer have the beautiful eco-woman warrior who first recognized the hidden potential of the Rough-N-Ready, but that’s another story. She’s happy and healthy and out there in the world engaged in what Thomas Berry calls “The Great Work” of bringing about the “Ecozoic Era.” I hope she still wears overalls from time to time, because everybody needs to feel that truth and beauty are real things in the world.
I react my own biodiesel. Me and the Eco-Amazon got into it by serendipity-do while we lived in Arcata. Actually, it is important to understand how we got into it, so I’ll go into some detail, in my inimitable style. I want you to understand that these things don’t just happen.
Before I worked at the Acey-Arcy, I worked for the Berkeley Ecology Center’s recycling program. Dave Williamson, who makes a first impression of an overweight southern Bubba type, is actually a genius and a fierce eco-warrior. He looked up his job description and found that as the Operations Manager of the curbside recycling program, “fuel procurement” was part of his purview. You see, Dave never waivers from the first goal of any true eco-warrior or person on a spiritual mission. He adheres to the pursuit of Truth. He never deluded himself about curbside recycling. “It is a stopgap, end of pipe shell game really, “ he would declare in the booming voice of a man who has spent much of his life around loud machinery. “Plastic recycling is a total sham, creating the illusion of ecological responsibility while actually passing the buck. To do all of this in diesel trucks that get three miles per gallon is absurd!”
So, he got a few gallons of biodiesel. He did not ask permission. Take a note there, o.k.? You wanna do something worth a damn in this world? It is a pretty good bet that you are going to have to at least start the thing off without asking permission. Dave put our crappiest, slowest, ugliest recycling truck on a strict B100 diet. B100 indicates 100% biodiesel. B80 is 80%, B20 is another popular formula, and most of the diesel in Europe is B2, just for lubricity. Dave wasn’t going for half measures, though, so B100 it was. The crew at the Ecology Center was mostly Mexicanos, and they called that truck “La Vieja”—the Old Woman, with overtones of The Old Bitch.
Well, first off, all the accumulated crap and gel in the fuel system got broken loose by the biodiesel, and clogged the fuel filter. This is a spin-on filter with a water trap, and it is mounted on the outside back of the cab. It takes 74 seconds to change that filter, if you aren’t in a rush. Then the truck cleared her throat, belched a huge cloud of black smoke, stretched, shuddered, shook herself down to the tire treads and started on her rounds. By the end of the day she was running better than she had in years. Since the stack on these trucks is right behind the open cab, you more or less work in a cloud of diesel fumes, and it is physically strenuous work. By the end of the week the drivers were vying for a chance to work on La Vieja because her exhaust was so sweet. There were never any biodiesel related mechanical problems that I know of.
At this point Dave went to the Board, and got approval to run the whole truck fleet on B100. It is still the test case for fleet biodiesel use in the U.S. because it was the first, and has burned biodiesel the longest. When I worked there, I fueled trucks with biodiesel, drove trucks on biodiesel, and generally got used to the idea that this was diesel fuel, just organically based rather than petroleum based. Rudolph Diesel first showed his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. For the demonstration it ran on peanut oil. When the petroleum industry came up with a distillate that worked in this engine, it was called diesel fuel.
The eco-Amazon and I bought a little 1979 Volkswagen diesel Dasher and powered it on biodiesel that I bought from a graduate student in Arcata. That was in 2001, before the Rough-N-Ready. She called me on the phone from Berkeley when she first put the biodiesel in. The car ran quieter, and was no more underpowered on biodiesel than it had been on petroleum diesel. VW developed that chassis for an 88 horsepower gas engine, and for the diesel put in a 44 horse powerplant, so it was plenty underpowered regardless. It got an honest 45 mpg, though… It was an obnoxious appliance-white colour, so we painted it green (appropriate, eh?) with brushes in our driveway, and put thousands of trouble free miles on it. It we called it The Mighty Golightly, as a tribute to its light footprint and an invocation of the lovely Audrey Hepburn in the classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” When we went our separate ways, the Mighty Golightly went with her mistress until this Fall when the car died and was replaced by a 1983 Mercedez 300D, the crème de la crème of biodieseling transport.
We bought our biodiesel from the grad student who was making it out of local restaurant oil. Then, an organic farmer friend of mine with a Datsun diesel pickup truck asked us if we’d be open to his moving his biodiesel reactor into our garage. He couldn’t keep it at the place it was because it scared the landlady to death. My landlord was super cool and green and I said, “Go for it.” It wasn’t until people were making fuel in my very own garage that I learned to do it. Then I was unstoppable.
So, the Ecology Center, then a local source, and finally folks making it in my garage is what it took for me to start to make my own fuel. Incremental steps over time, not a single epiphany. This is another note-taking point, like the one about not asking permission. Even where a life-changing epiphany appears to have occurred, if you look more closely, you will almost always find a step-by-step process.
I’m gonna talk in a non-exhaustive way about the footprint of biodiesel, and just for fun, I’m gonna try to do it as concisely as possible. Most biodiesel burned in this country is made from virgin oil. Virgin oil comes from food oil crops, because that is what helps agribusiness. This oil contains more imbedded fossil fuel energy than it does calories of useable energy. There are approximately 10 fossil-fuel calories in every calorie that we eat, and biodiesel oil is at least that bad. Biodiesel made from recycled oil, like sweatshop clothing bought second hand at a thrift store, is less evil, but not quantifiably so.
Biodiesel creates less of all pollutants than petroleum diesel, except NOx, or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is bad stuff. Also, my truck still spits out plenty of particulates—soot—under heavy acceleration. The big claim is that biodiesel is carbon-neutral, and therefore does not contribute to global warming. It uses carbon that is in the current carbon cycle, not ancient carbon from the depths of the earth. Still, if you didn’t burn that carbon, it wouldn’t go into the atmosphere at all, right?
Could we grow other crops for the oil? Sure. We could grow oil palm, which yields 4,585 pounds of oil per acre. We could grow coconut, which yields 2,070 pounds. However, what we actually grow are the food crops that make Montsanto rich—soy at a paltry 345 pounds per acre, or safflower at 605 pounds. To grow high-yield oil crops, you would have to subsidize the first years as the trees grew, and to do that you would have to have the political will to spend a massive amount of money on an endeavor to save the biosphere which would hurt the petroleum industry. Brother, once you’ve got the political will harnessed to do that, you could do better than biodiesel! Hell, you could create a domestic rail system that worked, or something equally radical!
Seventeen to twenty-two percent of biodiesel is methanol, furthermore. We derive our methanol in this country from petroleum sources. So biodiesel is at best approximately an 80% non-fossil fuel. You can make biodiesel out of ethanol, but you need more of it, it won’t react as well with used oil, and the sources of industrial ethanol in this country are all controlled by agribusiness, which means genetically modified corn feedstock, and that stuff has got at least 10 fossil fuel calories behind every calorie of energy that ends up turning the wheels on your vehicle.
This is all fairly brass-tacks ecological footprint sort of stuff. Then there is the less tangible issues. Supporting ArcherDaniel Midlands and Montsanto is an issue. The oil "cubies" that I collect my used oil in from the local restaurants who "sponsor" the Friendly Fuels Biodiesel Works show the ADM stamp right on the bottom of the plastic jug, as shown (poorly) in the photo above. On their website, ADM prominently features their work on biodiesel and ethanol--expert Greenwashing, if you ask me.
Perpetuating the myth that the individual transportation pod can be made sustainable is another. The paving of the planet is not abated by “alternative” fuels. The illusion that the soul-killing, stress-producing, give-me-another-Xanax, pace of life that the denizens of the developed world maintain is not destroying us is maintained by biodiesel. The use of the internal combustion engine, which turns only 13% of the energy in its fuel into forward momentum is continued—it is an invention which would never get off the ground if brought on the market today.
Discouraged by all of this, and inspired by the passionate students of the Woolman Semester, a radical semester program for students interested in Peace, Justice and Sustanability (, I did a project with two of them to put a Greasel brand ( straight vegetable oil (SVO) kit into the truck. The kit works fine, and was pretty easy to install, even with two teenagers helping. (Kidding, guys—you were great!) The truck runs just as well on the hot veggie oil as it does on biodiesel or regular diesel. That eliminates the methanol question, and gets my fuel costs down to about ten cents a gallon. Not bad, eh? The switch on my dashboard that throws the solenoid fuel valve from biodiesel to straight vegetable oil is labeled “”Paradise” for SVO, and “Purgatory” for biodiesel. Still, there is a little more soot, the long term effect on the engine is not known, and most of my other criticisms of biodiesel still apply.
The big issue, and the thing that has been most gratifying to me as a biodieseler, has been that I feel righteous (and possibly even self-righteous) about not personally contributing to oil wars. However, we cannot turn the entire domestic vehicle fleet over to biofuels. We can’t even turn the domestic diesel fleet to biodiesel, because we’d have to farm every available acre of land, and since we farm with more energy than we’d yield, we’d end up destroying our arable land in a total loser proposition.
Biodiesel, my friends is better than fossil fuel, has some potential to be better than it is now, and is still a classic case of ‘You cannot destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools.” It ain’t paradigm shift. It is simply wishful thinking.
Enter by the narrow, gate, my eco-compadres. Enter by the narrow gate. Read on…


Anonymous Robin M. said...

Thanks Carl. Chris and I had been talking about the viability of biodiesel but we didn't know enough to have a viable conversation.

You answer all the best questions.

7:00 PM, December 26, 2005  
Blogger Thom said...

Damn, brother, you sure can write. But mostly, you inform. Thanks for all the useful knowledge.

10:30 PM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Groser Karp said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you... now post the bibliography. ;}

5:25 AM, April 11, 2006  
Anonymous Ramus said...

FYI, not picking on you here...

NOx is chemical shorthand for oxides of nitrogen, not nitrous oxide. The chemical abbreviation for nitrous oxide is N2O (the 2 is a subscript, just like the "x" when writing NOx). As we all know, nitrous oxide is not a byproduct of internal combustion, rather it is commonly used as anesthesia by dentists, and to power whipped cream dispensers.

Keep up the good work.



7:32 PM, September 23, 2007  

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