NYTimes Article


Veteran Member
Sep 13, 2002
2002 Golf Indigo Blue
For a 'Veggie Car,' Grease Is the Word By JIM MOTAVALLI
THE fryers run all day at the Super Duper Weenie outlets in Fairfield and Monroe. The modest hot dog stands have been celebrated in magazines like Gourmet and Cigar Aficionado and on David Letterman's show, and every time there's more exposure, the lines grow.
Until recently, the restaurants had a disposal problem at the end of the week: 30 gallons of contaminated soy oil. To make it go away, the restaurants paid $40 to a Massachusetts-based rendering company.
But today, Super Duper Weenie's waste oil has become an asset, not a liability. Instead of piling up in a storage shed, it is filtered to remove potato starch and bread crumbs, then goes straight into the tank of the 1978 Mercedes 300D owned by Gary Zemola, an owner of the restaurants. The car, which bears the license plate SOYBNZ, has been converted from diesel fuel to 100 percent fryer-based biofuel.
"They laughed when I said what I was going to do," said Mr. Zemola of the Sandy Hook section of Newtown, wearing his trademark American flag head scarf and sitting on one of the Fairfield restaurant's bright red stools. "They said that dogs would chase me down the street. But now, with $2.50 a gallon gasoline, who's nuts? My veggie car is good for the environment and good for business. I'd be a fool not to do it."
The Mercedes was converted last year by Greasecar (www.greasecar.com) of Florence, Mass. The conversion includes a biofuel tank, filters, heat exchangers and plumbing to deliver the fuel to the engine. The engine can still burn diesel fuel. The conversion cost him $1,500, but the mechanically inclined can install it themselves for $795. Mr. Zemola said the car performs no differently than it did before.
Biodiesel only works in diesel engines, and while many people find it attractive, it is not an easy fuel to use. Because drivers usually can't pull up to a pump to refuel, most people who have converted their cars have to make the fuel themselves, which is not a simple process. And using the fuel could also void a new car's warranty.
"It definitely takes up time to make biodiesel," said David Henri of New Hartford, who burns biodiesel in his 1999 Volkswagen Jetta. "You have to be a dedicated person."
Because vegetable oils congeal in cold weather, biofuel vehicles start up using standard diesel in the winter, then switch to biodiesel after the car has been heated (either by electric heaters or the warming engine). Mr. Zemola's Mercedes can also run in sub-zero temperatures because the biofuel lines are encased in heater hoses to keep them warm. The Mercedes does indeed occasionally smell of French fries, and other times like popcorn or barbecue.
In a report issued this year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said that biodiesel is better for the environment than conventional diesel. The agency said that burning B100, which is 100 percent vegetable oil, in a car reduces particulate matter by 47 percent, unburned hydrocarbons by 67 percent and carbon monoxide by 48 percent, but is dirtier in nitrogen oxide emissions.
Diesel vehicles also can run, without any modification, on a processed blend of 20 percent vegetable oil and 80 percent standard diesel fuel, called B20. Biodiesel can be made at home with the right equipment and by people who can safely work with chemicals like lye and methanol.
Mr. Henri, a convenience-store service technician, makes his own fuel from vegetable oil he gets free from restaurants.
"I've always been interested in the environment and in alternative energy in particular," he said. "And after 9/11 I felt a lot more urgency about it. I began researching biodiesel and converted a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit to run on 100 percent vegetable oil. People really got a kick out of the smell. If you were following my car and got hungry for fish and chips, that's why."
Mr. Henri designed a biofuel conversion kit, using copper tubing, filters and separate fuel tanks, then converted six other cars for friends.
"Canola oil is great if I can get it because it has a lower cloud point, meaning it solidifies at a lower temperature," he said.
To make his biodiesel, Mr. Henri uses a processor based on an old hot water heater.
"You mix methanol and lye with vegetable oil, which causes a chemical reaction that strips the glycerin out of the oil," he said. "It takes two hours to mix the blend, then you have to let it sit overnight. It's a lot of work, but in one batch you get 55 gallons." He said the fuel flows better with the glycerin removed. Mr. Henri said he can make biodiesel for 60 cents to $1 a gallon.
Tony Fouladpour, a spokesman for Volkswagen, said putting biodiesel in one of its cars could void the warranty.
"We condone the use of an up to 5 percent biodiesel blend, but customers are responsible for the corrosion that may result from using higher blends," he said.
According to the National Biodiesel Board, national biodiesel production was expected to reach 75 million gallons in 2005, triple the 25 million gallons produced in 2004.
Rich Reilly of Sandy Hook, owner of the Internet-based Biodiesel Warehouse (www.biodieselwarehouse.com), said he planned to build a commercial-scale biodiesel production plant, with a capacity of 10 million gallons of B100 biodiesel a year. He said he hoped to open the plant in 2006, but did not know exactly where.
Mr. Reilly said he first heard of biodiesel on the radio during a Howard Stern show in 2003, then sold his oil-change franchise to jump into the alternative fuel business full time.
"We can grow our way out of fossil fuels," he said.
David J. Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said biodiesel would unlikely have that large an impact.
"From what I've seen of the studies that are out there, waste oils could only generate a billion gallons a year, which is 3 percent of our current diesel use," he said. "And with plant-based fuels like soybeans, you're competing with food crops. Everybody's looking for a silver bullet, but I think its overly optimistic to expect that we can replace even 10 percent of our fossil fuel needs with biodiesel."
Blended biodiesel fuels will also burn in home furnaces as effectively as in car engines, some companies that sell home heating oil said, although there was some concern that the fuel could damage furnaces. Devine Brothers, a home heating company in Norwalk that offers its customers a blend, has taken out billboards to trumpet the virtues of the fuel.
Customers of Santa Fuel in Bridgeport are getting a 5 percent biodiesel blend whether they ask for it or not.
"This is something we believe in as a company," said Peter S. Russell, the general manager. "It's a renewable product that is good for the environment. Five percent is not a lot, but it's a great start." Santa sells the fuel for $2.49 a gallon. The company also has a biodiesel pump in New Haven, where customers can fill their cars with a blend for $2.70 a gallon. Mr. Russell said no home heating customers have complained about the fuel, but several people have called to praise the company for using it.
Andrew Morin, president of Servco Oil, which sells a blended biodiesel, and also president of Cannondale Heating and Air Conditioning, both based in Wilton, said he didn't believe a low-percentage blend would harm furnaces, but higher blends might.
"I'm not aware of any issues with a 5 percent biodiesel blend, though there has been some speculation in the industry that it could be a problem at higher concentrations of 40 percent or more," he said. "I would definitely be wary of using B100 because of possible danger to gaskets or seals on pumps and filters."
Karl W. Radune, a mechanical engineer from Cromwell who planned to open a cooperative to sell biodiesel for home heating, said a few dollars worth of Teflon replacements will take care of the seals.
"You really don't need to make any serious changes to your furnace," he said.
Mr. Radune said he planned to produce 8,000 gallons of B100 biodiesel a week using equipment he designed himself. He said he would charge $2 to $2.50 a gallon.
If he can sign up 400 households, Mr. Radune said, his co-op will break even.
"My instincts kicked in and I decided to build something professional from stainless steel, not a rusty oil drum," he said. "I'm a capitalist, but I'm trying to do something fairly altruistic here. I see this as a way to create jobs in Connecticut, save farms that could make money from biofuel crops, and stop oil company price-gouging."