Grease Guzzlers

As gas prices go through the roof, many are turning to cheap and greasy biodiesel technology to get around town

By Ryder Palmere, Aaron Harris, and Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 5/11/2006

When the motor of Evan Armstrong’s Mercedes gets heated up — more accurately gets cooking — people tend to notice.

“It’s when it drives past you that you notice something different,” the Pasadena resident said of his nearly 25-year-old diesel-powered car, which he recently personally converted to run on biodiesel fuel — basically, simple vegetable oil.

“It smells like french fries when it’s running on vegetable oil. You should see the look on peoples’ faces when they smell the oil burning,” said the British expatriate whose been living in the United States for the past two years.

The 1982 300D Mercedes, or Mazola Benz, as Armstrong’s co-workers have dubbed it, goes through about a tank and a half of vegetable oil a week before having to refill.

“I was driving about 500 miles a week to get back and forth from work when I decided to give it a try,” he said. “The engine is pretty efficient. I get about 30 miles to the gallon, and I even get a little more horse power.”

High financial mileage

Armstrong certainly isn’t alone in turning to alternative fuels to get around, with average gas prices hitting the $4-a-gallon mark and American automakers and public policymakers frantically looking at a variety of ways to help get Americans off their many-layered addictions to fossil fuels.

As petroleum becomes more and more expensive and difficult to come by, gas alternatives besides biodiesel are beginning to take off among US and international carmakers. Brazil, for instance, according to news accounts, has recently switched completely to the corn derivative ethanol, which releases far less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. Automakers here are also developing hybrid gas-electric engine cars for the US market, as well as hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars. (Toyota, General Motors and virtually every other major automobile manufacturer, writes the Internet business and news wire CNET, are all probing new fuel economy technologies in their new lines of cars.)

Some are more popular than others, and diesel power isn’t at the top of the line. Ethanol, and natural gas- and electric-powered cars are. Most industrial-size vehicles are switching to new technologies altogether — to electricity, ethanol, natural gas or combinations of the three — for power.

But for those who already own diesel-powered vehicles, what was old is new again — nearly 110 years after German engineer Rudolph Diesel first developed his revolutionarily simple motor to run on peanut oil.

In fact, Diesel’s motor is so easy to convert that it’s become child’s play for a group of award-winning high school students enrolled in teacher Michael Winters’ Eco-Fuel Project.

According to Winters, the Eco-Fuel Project is a class and an after school activity at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel in which the students do all the work: writing grants, testifying in Sacramento, implementing alternative energy strategies for schools, addressing public transportation, and designing and building the machines they use.

Along with biodiesel, the kids also work with solar, electric and hydrogen based energy systems, Winters said in a phone interview.

In September, the San Gabriel students were building a fleet of biodiesel rigs to loan to other schools that otherwise could not or would not invest in their own equipment. The goal was to spread the word to students of all ages across the region that alternative energy production can be simple and fun.

"I realized that it is the children that need to be our target to implement full adoption of alternative energy," Winters told the Weekly at the time about the impetus for the program’s founding in 2000. "They need to develop a passion like I did early in life and then have an opportunity to actually build and produce energy from the alternative sources."

Today, Winters said the kids create partnerships with corporations and businesses to create biodiesel in their existing infrastructure and train them how to use it on their own.

“We are working with American Apparel to implement a machine which the students built that creates 150 gallons of biodiesel to run their vehicles,” Winters said.

The class, as Winters explained, is an ongoing project that includes anywhere from 70 to 100 students and teaches them skills they can use in a critical industry to earn a livable wage after graduating from high school. It integrates regular class curriculum including engineering and design.

“With the fleet of biodiesel rigs the students built, we have what we call a Happy Meal, which makes a scientific research unit of one liter of fuel. This is to make sure the chemistry is correct before mass producing it," said Winters.

Josh Tickell is founder and director of Hollywood-based Biodiesel America, a nonprofit group helping to spread public awareness and enthusiasm for this plant-derived fuel. Tickell was so fascinated with this wonder fuel that in the mid-1990s he bought a 1986 Renault-based Winnebago LeSharo motorhome, started running it on biodiesel and, with the help of some friends, repainted and rechristened it "The Veggie Van."

Following that came a series of books, a cult-like following and the formation of Biodiesel America.

"Why wouldn’t we use it?" Tickell asked during an interview with the Weekly. "It does function like a normal fuel."

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, Tickell also pointed out that roughly $100 billion of the $600 billion federal trade deficit comes from oil imports and that even a mere 25 percent market penetration of biodiesel would provide the country with a massive financial boost.

"Economically speaking," he told Weekly reporter Tom Anderson for a separate but related article, "it would stabilize the American economy and create literally millions of jobs."

Fill ‘er up

Perhaps that will happen in the not-so-distant future. But today, if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for, you might drive right past the Los Angeles area’s first biodiesel fuel station.

There’s no giant, spinning green ball with a big glowing “B” or anything — the environmentalist analogue to the famous Unocal 76 ball.

Instead, wheeling into a Culver City parking lot, as per instructions offered on the Web site, you come across a nondescript horse trailer. It sure doesn’t look like the key to overcoming our national addiction to fossil fuels or any kind of ecological or economic panacea.

But it’s what’s inside that counts: One 1,000-gallon tank full of American-farmed soy oil, or a B99 mix that is 99 percent soy oil, 1 percent petrol (they get a tax break to include that little dab of petrol), to fill the gas tank of any paying member’s diesel car.

Getting into the game can be a costly endeavor ($500 membership fee, plus about $3.40 per gallon), but is well worth the investment for a myriad of reasons.

“It’s unfortunate right now in California that the ability to go to a station and buy biodiesel is not there,” says Kent Bullard, a long-time biodiesel advocate and employee of the National Park Service. He’s co-founder of the Biodiesel Co-op along with Colette Brooks of BIG Imagination Group, an advertising agency in Culver City.

“My advocacy is to see biodiesel available commercially to pumps,” Bullard said, “because until you get it at the pump so that people are pulling in their pickups or their Mercedes or VWs, it’s not going to happen on a broad scale within the community.”

Bullard drives his vehicles on a B100 mix — 100 percent biodiesel, zero petroleum. “I have to remain pure at heart,” he said. “I have to walk the talk. By the same token, driving on straight vegetable oil is a ‘onesy-twosey’ kind of thing, where you’re more interested in taking care of yourself instead of taking care of your community. I want to see biodiesel produced locally. Every dollar that we spend in California on petroleum essentially is a trade deficit for the local area. As long as we’re having biodiesel imported, it doesn’t have the caveat of being a local fuel.”

The co-op’s vision for the mobile fueling station is to raise awareness in a specific area — in this case, the Culver City-Marina del Rey area — to inspire the construction of a permanent station, then move on to the next town in need.

“What we want to demonstrate is that there is a market here and our hope is that a gas station comes and puts us out of business,” said Brooks.

If used in conjunction with solar and wind power, biodiesel could radically improve the wretched air quality of Los Angeles and help strengthen the local economy. This city was ranked the third worst polluter of fine particle pollutants in the country in 2004.

Plus, with no relief from high gas prices in sight, why not try something new, err, old? With gasoline prices going through the roof, a vast number of people globally are returning to Diesel’s technology. As it stands now, 45 states officially utilize biodiesel in various ways (25 million gallons were sold in the US in 2004), as well as some of our neighboring countries to the north and south, and a slew of European nations.

And why shouldn’t they? Biodiesel adheres to strict EPA standards, and when burned, results in a substantial reduction of unburned hydrocarbons. Plus, carbon monoxide emissions are approximately 50 percent less than that from straight petroleum fuel.

But perhaps the best part is that biodiesel is made from beans, or any number of other vegetables. It may sound simple, and it really is, but it’s not like going to your nearest restaurant, taking their oil runoff from the deep-fryer and dumping it into the tank of your car. The oil needs a little filtering and processing.

Bringing the cost of biodiesel down to an affordable price seems to carry a burden similar to what has confronted solar power, taking the better part of three decades to gain momentum. With each advancement of alternative fuels, however, like the recent passing of the state’s Solar Power Initiative, biodiesel gets just that much closer to its day in the mainstream marketplace.

Government involvement

State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, has been one legislative advocate of biodiesel. On Sept. 29, Ashburn’s biodiesel bill was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, passing through both houses of the Legislature with unanimous support. The bill gives incentives to public agencies and utilities to use vehicles that operate on biodiesel and biodiesel blends.

“By using biodiesel, we can reduce dependency on foreign oil by up to 20 percent,” Ashburn recently told the Weekly’s sister paper LA CityBeat. On the federal level, the 2000 Energy Policy Act and a subsequent presidential executive order require that all federal fleets, including the military, use high percentages of “alternative” fueled vehicles, including biodiesel.

"Engines using biodiesel have been shown to emit fewer greenhouse gases, particulate matter and sulfur than standard diesel," Ashburn wrote in a statement soon after Schwarzenegger signed his bill. “We are assisting the Armed Services within our state to comply with federal conservation standards. We are also promoting the use of alternative fuel sources which will help improve the air quality all across California."

Brooks said that the one way to bring the cost down is for the government to subsidize biodiesel.

“With biodiesel, the demand increases, the infrastructure sets in, and then the price comes down,” she said. “If the co-op is able to get it down to $3.41 a gallon with a thousand-gallon tank, with a regular fueling station that could pump 50,000 gallons a month of this stuff, you could get it for much less.”


And then there’s the celebrity factor, which raised the profile of biodiesel considerably.

The National Biodiesel Conference in San Diego recently recognized country-music legend Willie Nelson for his efforts in promoting the awareness of biodiesel.

Nelson helped to build a fueling station in Texas stocked with BioWillie fuel, his own B20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petrol) blend currently sold in four states.

Singer Bonnie Raitt hosted a biodiesel educational event last month and is touring the country in a vehicle running on a B20 blend.

Actress Daryl Hannah drives her car on the fuel and is a member of the biodiesel co-op who regularly speaks at conferences and rallies.

“People see this as the right thing to do for a variety of reasons,” Bullard said. “My boss is very Republican. He gives me grief about going out and doing this biodiesel thing. And I look him right in the eye and say, ‘I’m doing this 100 percent American fuel thing.’ Then he can’t say anything. You can tell that class of people that this is supporting American farmers and supporting American economy, not sending petrol dollars out to support hostile regimes.”

A win win

Christopher Rainone, a 32-year-old freelance photographer who works for the Weekly, drives a 1984 Mercedes station wagon. Last year, Rainone made the conversion and hasn’t looked back.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile, actually, then my car died and it kind of forced my hand,” said Rainone, who, like Armstrong runs on 100 percent used vegetable oil, which he personally filters before using in his car.

“I love it,” he said. "It’s made me a little more conscious about driving and how the vehicle works, especially when I’m thinking about getting fuel and I can’t just go to a gas station. … It’s a little more maintenance, but it’s what, 12 bucks for a new filter and you have to get one every eight months?”

Armstrong installed a specially designed 12-gallon tank and attachments, which retails at specialty auto parts outlets for about $700, into the trunk of his car to carry the vegetable oil.

“On cold mornings vegetable oil tends to be quite thick,” Armstrong explained, “so I start the car using diesel fuel and when the engine warms up I flip a switch and start running the vegetable oil.”

Gallon for gallon, vegetable oil costs about the same as diesel fuel. So where is the savings, you might ask?

In Armstrong’s case, the savings come in getting used vegetable oil from an English pub in Sierra Madre that fries its fish and chips in what ultimately becomes fuel for Armstrong’s car.

“I get it from them about once every other week,” Armstrong said. “Usually they have to pay somebody to dispose of it for them, but I just come and take it off of their hands for free. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Armstrong was thinking of going to doughnut shops for oil, but said with a laugh, “I’m worried that I’ll have a long line of police cars following me.”

Some Local Biodiesel Sources

Lovecraft Biofuels can convert your diesel vehicle to run on 100 percent vegetable oil. Their fueling station is now open at 2029 Blake Ave., Echo Park (213) 291-8587 or (877) 201-4369. Email

Buy B20 from the pump at ITL’s Cudahy Fuel Stop, 8330 Atlantic Ave., Cudahy, (323) 562-3230. Call in advance to order B99 in five-gallon buckets.

LA Biofuels delivers 55-gallon drums of B99 to your door. (310) 396-5310

Make your own B100 at home for less than a buck a gallon with the Biodiesel Homebrew Guide, which can be purchased with all the gear needed, from Utah Biodiesel Supply.