Biodiesel in Berkeley

The Ecology Center's Trucks no Longer Run on Petrol


It was Desiree Sideroff from Berkeley Worms (the University of California student composting collective) who first approached me to ask if the Ecology Center would investigate the use of biodiesel in its vehicles. I agreed to look into it and was immediately impressed by the sustainability of the fuel and the potential for local production.

Ironically, the Ecology Center was considering using natural gas to power our next generation of trucks. Had we made that choice, the Ecology Center would have been complicit in the exploitation of the mineral resources of Alaska’s North Slope. Fortunately, no oil wells have to be drilled to obtain biodiesel.

Sideroff put me in touch with Randall von Wedel, the proprietor of Cytoculture Inc., a company that brokers biodiesel fuel. Biodiesel is non-toxic, biodegradable, and does little harm to waterways, von Wedel told me. Furthermore, it is virtually edible and is less toxic than table salt.

Before making the switch, I made a lot of calls to engine manufacturers. Some people suggest that you demount your fuel tank and clean it at a radiator shop. (Believe it or not, there is a species of bacteria that lives in diesel tanks and forms sediment.)

Our tanks looked clean. I traced the fuel system of each truck, checking for cleanliness and making sure that there were no fuel lines or gaskets made from natural rubber. (We had to take this precaution since biodiesel is a solvent and it has the potential to dissolve natural rubber components, which could clog our fuel systems.)

We tested the biodiesel in our trucks twice at varying concentrations and under varying conditions. The tests were observed by representatives from various transit agencies that may use biodiesel as a bridge to buses powered by fuel cells, hybrid power or biodiesel itself.

Two immediate effects were apparent when we started running the trucks on biodiesel. First, there was a decrease in engine vibration. Second, instead of spewing a sooty cloud, the tailpipe ran clean and emitted an aroma of French fries.

Mike Robertson, the diesel mechanics instructor from the College of Alameda, tested our vehicles on an opacity meter. He calculated that when we used a blend of 20 percent biodiesel, we reduced our particulate emissions by 24 percent. When we used 100 percent biodiesel, we reduced particulates by 84 percent.

Based on standard figures published by the Southwest Research Institute (SRI), the Ecology Center has already prevented the release of one ton of particulate emissions into the air.

Diesels: Rugged and Versatile
As a fleet manager, I like diesel engines. They are very rugged and can handle the extreme level of use that we at the Ecology Center have to put them through. The Ecology Center’s drivers stop and start the trucks 500 times each day and that is extremely hard on an engine.

When Rudolf Diesel invented his engine in the late 1890s, coal and petroleum were often unavailable in the farmbelt. Diesel literally wanted to empower farmers, so he designed his engine to run on peanut oil.

Rudolf Diesel was on the right track. Biodiesel is empowerment in every sense. If you can obtain vegetable oil, wood or grain alcohol and sodium hydroxide (lye), you can make diesel fuel.

Our fuel is made by Griffin Industries in Kentucky from recycled vegetable oil. Most biodiesel is made from soybean oil, since soy diesel receives price supports from the US Department of Agriculture. There are fewer than 10 biodiesel plants in the US. Most are in the Midwest and use oil from seeds as feedstock. Pacific Biodiesel in Hawai’i uses 40 tons of waste cooking oil that restaurants discard in the Maui landfill every day.

Dirty Diesels
Diesel engines have been maligned - and for good reason. The fuel that has been used in them often was cheap, low-grade “number 2 diesel.” People could use these fuels because diesel engines were so tough they could run on anything. Under regulatory compulsion, the petroleum companies have begun to clean up diesel fuel. At the same time, engine manufacturers have been hard at work to reduce noise and pollution.

Regular petroleum diesel fuel has a carbon chain that contains 15 carbon atoms. Plant oils have carbon chains that range from 14 to 18 carbon atoms in length. Biodiesel molecules contain relatively simple carbon chains that contain no sulfur and none of the aromatics associated with fossil fuels. The aromatics - benzene, toluene and xylene - have been linked to a number of health problems. A happy benefit of biodiesel is that it is composed of a uniform carbon chain so biodiesel virtually eliminates these dangerous aromatics.

Biodiesel contains nearly 10 percent oxygen, which enables it to combust more thoroughly. (There is no need for synthetic “oxygenates” like toxic MTBE since biofuel is already an “oxygenated” fuel.) This cleaner combustion helps reduce pollutants.

Currently available veggie-diesel has two downsides. It is not as explosive a fuel as gasoline and it absorbs water, which can cause metal corrosion. Although corn and soybeans are the major feedstock for today’s veggie-fuels, there are scores of other plants whose oils could become future energy resources. Coconut oil, which has a shorter carbon chain (and is, thus, more explosive), may eventually replace petro-fuel in today’s gasoline-powered engines.

Over its lifecycle, biodiesel emits 78 percent less CO2 than conventional diesel fuel. Biodiesel produces 43 percent less carbon monoxide (CO) and 55 percent fewer particulates than conventional diesel. These particulates that you see in the smoke of diesel exhaust are known to cause cardiac and respiratory problems. The Technical Handbook for Biodiesel notes that this plant-based fuel has been shown to reduce mutagenicity (the ability to cause cancer) by as much as 90 percent.

The one significant pollutant that biodiesel does not eliminate or mitigate is nitrogen oxides. NOx emissions contibute to the formation of smog.

The Ecology Center and Von Wedel recently teamed up in an attempt to decrease NOx by blending biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil and biodiesel from tropical oils with a common diesel additive. NOx remains a major roadblock for air board certification despite the lack of toxicity in biodiesel exhaust.

One way to mitigate diesel pollution is with catalytic converters. These have been available for quite some time in Europe but are now just becoming available here in the US.

Cummins Engines Inc. has a radical new diesel design that reduces noise and substantially reduces NOx. And research is being conducted at the university level on a Homogenous Combustion Compression Ignition Engine that will virtually eliminate many pollutants.

The Chemistry of Biodiesel
Ethanol and biodiesel come from plants (which are carbohydrate sources) as opposed to petroleum or coal (hydrocarbon sources).

Technically, biodiesel is vegetable methyl ester. Biodiesel is produced though the process of transesterification, which converts the vegetable oil molecule from a triglyceride (a glycerin with three esters attached to it) to a chain of esters with the glycerin removed. After we change the esters (hence the term “transesterfication”), the resulting glycerin by-product can be used to make soap or it can be composted. Transesterfication changes vegetable oil from a thick, syrupy substance to a fluid resembling regular diesel fuel.

Transesterification is a relatively simple two-stage process. It is possible to make biodiesel on a farm, in a village in India, or in your backyard.

Jobs, Health and Security
The University of Missouri has calculated that an annual production of 100 million gallons of biodiesel in a metropolitan region would yield 6,000 new jobs. Our country loses $80 billion a year to oil imports and spends more than $250 billion a year to defend and protect our access to oil resources overseas.

People are dying from the application of this military force to secure our access to oil. Of course, Kuwait comes to mind, but let us also remember the Karen people of Burma (many of whom died as forced laborers working to build a Unocal pipeline), the Ogoni of Nigeria (whose land, water and lives have been blighted by Shell Oil), and the U’wa of Columbia (whose rainforest home has been targeted for exploitation by Occidental Petroleum).

And, closer to home, people are dying right up the road from Berkeley, in Richmond, where the community has to share its airspace with numerous oil, chemical and refining facilities. The cancer mortality rate in west Contra Costa County is 25 percent higher than the rest of the state.

If we want to find a fuel to decrease toxic emissions, we can hardly do better than using biodiesel. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that has passed the EPA’s Clean Air Act Tier II testing. In the EPA’s tests, both adult and juvenile rats were subjected to biodiesel exhaust and no pathologies were detected.

Making Our Own Free Fuel
We don’t have to go above the Arctic Circle to get biodiesel. No oil wells need be drilled to obtain biodiesel: it is available anywhere there is a deep-fat fryer. One fast-food restaurant can produce more than 50 gallons of waste oil a day - enough to keep one of our trucks running all day. (With the addition of heaters, filters and extra fuel tanks to our trucks, it would be possible to use waste cooking oil directly.)

We have plenty of resources right here in Berkeley to provide biodiesel if we make it ourselves and end our dependence on conventional diesel. Nationally we have the resources from both fallow farmland and waste cooking oil to produce enough fuel for 25 percent of the country’s diesel needs.

By making own home-grown biodiesel, we can guarantee the quality of the fuel. The Ecology Center now is looking into dedicating several hundred acres of cropland to grow and harvest canola oil or palm oil to power our truck fleet.

We have begun to manufacture biodiesel on a micro-level. We hope to train people in the small-scale manufacture of biodiesel and leverage this into a small pilot plant.

Energy Freedom; Better Mileage
The current energy crisis has hammered home the fact that energy is made by the few and is consumed by the many. Until now, we have had few alternatives other than using less fuel. Biofuels could change that.

At one point last winter, when the cost of natural gas actually exceeded that of biodiesel, I started receiving a lot of phone calls.

At around $2 per gallon, biodiesel is still twice as expensive as regular diesel but that’s because biodiesel does not enjoy federal support in the form of “oil depletion allowance” write-offs for oil companies. Nor does biodiesel enjoy the hidden subsidies such as the defense budget that go, in large measure, to protecting our access to foreign oil.

But if cost is your main concern, making biodiesel yourself will lower the price to that of regular diesel. And biodiesel performs just as well - if not better than petroleum diesel.

I conducted mileage analysis and determined that biodiesel was 17 percent less efficient per gallon than petroleum-based diesel. Still, biodiesel is potentially the cheapest and most available form of alternative fuel. We do not have to pour money into an expensive fueling facility or pay for exotic new engines that cost three times as much as diesels. All we need do is convert our trucks to non-toxic petroleum-free operation.

The Ecology Center operates the only municipal fleet of DOT Class-8 heavy-duty trucks in the country that uses 100 percent biodiesel. One reason we can afford to do this is that we are a nonprofit membership organization.

After we converted our fleet to biodiesel, we persuaded the City of Berkeley to use it - not just in the city’s solid waste trucks but in stationary power generators as well. The city has since switched its solid-waste fleet to run off a blend of 20 percent biodiesel (which is rated as an EPA Clean Technology fuel).

If you wish to purchase biodiesel in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a public pump at Olympic Petroleum at 2690 Third Street in San Francisco. This biodiesel fueling station - the first in the nation - was inaugurated in 2001 by the Bluewater Network, a project of Earth Island Institute.

The Ecology Center now has as much operational experience with biodiesel as anyone. We have informally consulted with hospitals, construction firms, the Metropolitan Transit Commission and other collection programs about the use of this fuel.

The Ecology Center is planning to form a Biodiesel Consortium (ECBC) that will pool demand with other consumers to leverage our buying power to keep costs down. With the ECBC, we can set our own fuel specifications, establish a dedicated biodiesel infrastructure, and set the precedent for the local production of biofuel feedstocks from tallow, sump grease, and deep-fat fryer oil.

We can use our nonprofit status to create the infrastructure needed to expand the use of biodiesel. To this end, we have lined up a storage facility in Richmond that can handle bulk biodiesel in railcar quantities.

Several Bay Area organizations have indicated an interest in joining the ECBC. When that happens, the Ecology Center will be able to facilitate the use of biodiesel on a regional scale.

Our successful use of biodiesel has created an enormous amount of goodwill. We have been featured on National Public Radio and CNN. We have been written up in newspapers and magazines. But more important than any of that has been the response here at home. During our pick-up runs, our drivers report that Berkeley residents have literally come out of their homes to thank us for using this fuel.

What You Can Do For information on biodiesel, click onto For more information on Williamson’s program, contact the Ecology Center [2530 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702, (510) 548-2220,].The book From the Fyer to the Fuel Tank by Joshua Tickell may be ordered from the Ecology Center for $28 (including postage).

Dave Williamson is the director of the Berkeley Recycling Program. This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Ecology Center Annual Meeting on January 23, 2002.

Nature’s Fuel-oil Plants
Corn, cashew, oat, palm, lupine, rubber seed, kenaf, calendula, cotton, hemp, soybean, rapeseed, olive tree, castor bean, jojoba, pecan, oil palm, coffee, linseed, hazelnut, euphorbia, pumpkin seed, sesame, safflower, rice, sunflower, peanut, tung oil tree, jatropha, macadamia nut, brazil nut, avocado, coconut and macuba palm.

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