'Cool Fuel': Brew It Yourself

Gabe Schwartzman, a high school student in Garret Park, salvages used fryer oil from a local restaurant and uses it to power his car. Video by AJ Chavar/washingtonpost.com
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gabe Schwartzman, a tall, lanky high school senior from Montgomery County, can fill up the tank of his 1980 Volvo sedan for less than $20.

And he's happy to share his secret: "I take what would be thrown away and turn it into fuel."

Over the last several months, Gabe has been hunkered down in the basement of his parents' Garrett Park home, converting used fryer oil from a restaurant up the street into fuel for his car.

Brewing biodiesel, once a quaint hobby for green-minded citizens and budding chemists, is becoming more mainstream. The spike in gas prices is making fryer oil, the messy aftermath of super spuds and mozzarella sticks, a hot commodity. It has even spawned a crime wave. Law enforcement officials have reported a surge in fryer oil thefts. Officials suspect the culprits are finding a ready market for the waste oil.

In this region, two biodiesel co-ops have recently formed: Baltimore Biodiesel and the Green Guild Biodiesel Co-op, which was co-founded by two University of Maryland graduates.

"It's the cool fuel," said Montgomery County Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), a biodiesel enthusiast. "Just think: You can turn bacon grease into fuel to drive a tractor."

Biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from combining vegetable oils or animal fats with other substances, most commonly lye and methanol. It can be used on its own or mixed with regular diesel fuel to power any vehicle that runs on diesel. Although the fuel is nontoxic, the chemicals used to produce it can cause nerve damage -- even blindness -- if handled improperly.

Environmentalists like biodiesel because it burns cleaner and because some versions recycle what is essentially a waste product. A study conducted by the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture found that using biodiesel in place of diesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 78 percent.

According to Joe Jobe, chief executive of the National Biodiesel Board, about 500,000 gallons of biodiesel were sold in 1999 by commercial producers nationwide; in 2006, 500 million gallons were sold. But it is still a tiny part of the fuel market. In 2007, U.S. consumers used more than 142 billion gallons of gasoline.

There are no official statistics on the number of home brewers. About two years ago, Graydon Blair, a home brewer who sells biodiesel brewing supplies online, did his own survey and estimated there were about 20,000. With the spike in diesel prices in March, he expects that number to grow.

Before, his customers were "hippies and greenies," said Blair, president of Utah Biodiesel Supply. Now they're "desperate business owners -- mom and pop operations who are dying with all these fuel increases."

Lately, Dan Goodman, a senior fellow for renewable energy at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and head of Biodiesel University, has fielded calls daily from people seeking information on making biodiesel. (Despite its name, Biodiesel University isn't a school to teach people how to make biodiesel; it's a mobile education lab aimed at getting students interested in science.)

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