A small, but growing number of do-it-yourselfers across the country are making biodiesel fuel to run their own vehicles -- saving money, polluting less and getting a thrill out of turning waste grease into gas.
“I just have an inbred desire to not waste something that can be used for another purpose,” said Mark Hymel, a control systems analyst from Covington, La., who fills up his 36-gallon Ford 350 five times a month with biodiesel fuel that he makes in a backyard workshop. “The only problem is finding the time to make the fuel. But since I started back in 2006, I’ve saved about $5,000.”
Hymel gets shipments of restaurant grease from Backyard Biodiesel, a New Orleans-based firm that collects used grease from restaurants, processes it and then delivers it to members like Hymel. Other cooperatives are in operation in Baltimore, Seattle and Berkeley, Calif.
In his backyard lab, Hymel combines the waste grease with methanol to make biodiesel. He showed his daughter I showed her how to titrate the chemicals when she was 5 or 6 years old. “She got a kick of seeing the solution turn pink,” Hymel said. “I explained some of the chemicals are dangerous. It gave her opportunity to become familiar with chemicals. Most kids have no clue. It’s stinky and it’s dirty, but not so much a danger.”
Not everyone agrees. In a 2011 paper in the Alternative Energy Journal, James Potter, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, concluded that there were “strong possibilities for catastrophic failure and severe injury,” among the backyard biodiesel brewers. Potter estimated a 1 percent chance of a methanol storage drum explosion, and a one in ten thousand chance of fire in a methanol circulation piping.
“From this collection of assumptions, backyard biodiesel production is a very dangerous hobby,” Potter wrote.
Hymel works in the petroleum industry in Louisiana and says he’s careful, especially with methanol, a highly-flammable liquid. “There are a whole lot of farmers that have more potent chemical stockpiles than I do,” Hymel said.
Still, many backyard biodiesel brewers say the benefits far outweigh any potential risks.
“There are personal benefits and there are global benefits,” said Andre Gellene, volunteer treasurer of Baltimore Biodiesel, a distributor of biodiesel that is currently operating two diesel pumps in the Baltimore suburbs. “People want to do what they can to lower their impact (on the environment),” Gellene said. “That’s the benefit.”
Baltimore Biodiesel has about 80 active members who buy a blend of either 20 percent or 80 percent biodiesel/regular diesel. The co-op doesn’t make its own biodiesel, but buys it from distributors. Consumers pay $4.85 per gallon for the 80 percent biodiesel blend, compared to about $4.10 per gallon for regular diesel fuel.
Brandon Iglesias, owner of Backyard Biodiesel in New Orleans, says the state of Louisiana is certifying DIY biodiesel makers like Hymel to make sure they know what they are doing and operating safely. Anyone who buys waste grease from Iglesias has to have the state-approved training.
“We are all spoiled with energy, we just drive up to a pump and pump,” Iglesias said. “Making biodiesel takes time. It’s a unique individual who has the time and is concerned with the environment to make their own fuel, in addition to having the technical capacity.”
Data from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency show that biodiesel has fewer emissions of air pollutants like sulfur dioxide than regular fuel, as well as fewer emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.