Sunday, March 8, 2009

Locally Produced Bio Diesel

I recently completed my Podcast on locally produced or "homemade" bio diesel. Prior to this project I knew nothing about the process, advantages, or disadvantages. I knew that a family friend named Joe, who happens to live within an hour from Austin, produces bio diesel at his rural home. I contacted him and made the trip to his house to investigate his bio diesel operation.
My purpose here is to demonstrate just how easy it is to produce bio diesel.
Joe's source for cooking oil is nothing more than a verbal agreement with local restaurants to pick up their oil once a month. He produces about 300 gallons at a time with his equipment, so he needs to pick up a lot of oil. Joe designed and built this tank trailer he dubbed the "super sucker" to transport the used cooking oil from local restaurants. For most of us, this would be a bit excessive, but one could do the same thing with a smaller container. Joe is very environmentally conscious, so he even designed this tank so there is no engine driven pump to extract the cooking oil. Instead, Joe produces a negative pressure prior to leaving his house. This allows him to extract the oil and then he uses positive air pressure to push the oil from the tank when he returns. He uses a series of storage tanks to allow the solid particles to settle out of the oil and once again, these could be smaller tanks if your space is limited.
To this point in the process, there are no chemicals added to the oil and very little energy needed. Joe lets his oil settle for about a month in order to provide the cleanest oil he can get. If one wanted to do this on a smaller scale, a series of smaller containers can be used in your garage, closet, etc. Joe told me he has even made a test batch in a kitchen blender!
Now for the best part. Joe has a processing tank and an evaporation tank that he built and this is where all of the "magic" happens. These turn the fatty acids transported from the local Chinese takeout restaurant into long chain hydrocarbons suitable for combustion. By the way, Joe tells me that the cleanest oil to acquire is typically from Chinese restaurants. Joe pumps the stored oil into the processor where it is heated to 140 degrees F and mixed with methanol and lye. I will spare you the chemistry here. Raising three hundred gallons of liquid to 140 degrees requires energy. In order to lower his energy needs for the process, Joe enclosed his tanks in a greenhouse to take advantage of solar energy. I was at his house on a cool February day and his greenhouse had raised the temperature to almost 100 degrees F. Over time, this is a huge savings and very environmentally friendly.
After the reaction, the only by-product of this process, glycerin, is drained off. There are two options for glycerin. It can be sold to those who use it to make soap and other cosmetic products or disposed of in a chemical digester.
The bio diesel is now pumped over into the evaporation tank, which is the silver tank in the photo at right. The excess methanol is evaporated to leave only pure bio diesel. Joe pumps it from here into a 500 gallon storage tank where it waits to be used in his two vehicles: a Dodge truck and a Mercedes Sedan. Joe has witnessed no adverse effects on his vehicles for the past three years of using his bio diesel and further reports no loss in fuel economy.
Joe does not receive a tax incentive for his bio diesel production, although one is available from the federal government in the form of a $.10/gallon income tax credit for less than 15 million gallons.(See Small Agri-Biodiesel Producer Tax Credit,
There are currently no state tax incentives to produce small-scale
bio diesel. The Department of Energy's website has a very detailed review of all applicable state and federal laws and incentives.(
The lack of incentives could be related to the idea that the state government would rather have you paying taxes at the pump than reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. At least in Texas it appears that we are promoting alternative fuels while not providing appropriate policies and incentives to motivate the public to engage. If the state wants to lead in this effort, they must provide incentives that are meaningful and I believe this kind of ingenuity will continue to grow.
If you are interested in producing bio diesel, a good online resource is


Bryan said...

Interesting post, Corey. How many people could use this same method or how this method could be scaled up to produce mass amounts. According to the National Biodiesel Board, 60% of the 690 million gallons of biodiesel made in the U.S. in 2008 came from soybeans, and the rest came from animal fat and cooking oil. If more methods like Joe's could be used maximized, it seems this percentage could be easily be raised.

David Wogan said...

This is great! Having Joe take away the oil probably saves the restaurants some money because they usually have to pay someone to take away and process the used oils. There is something "magical" about making your own fuel :) I've always to do that. I pictured having a 500 gallon tank in my garage that I could fill up my car every few days when I need to.

The good thing about making biodiesel in Texas is that you avoid (for the most part) having to worry about fuel gelling when the air gets really cold outside. This reminds me, I was behind an old Mercedes Turbodiesel the other day on Lamar and the girl was running on biodiesel. I didn't realize it at first, but the exhaust smelled really good - like Chinese food!