January 10, 2006 2:24 PM PST

Biodiesel guru sees fuel joining mainstream

LOS ANGELES--Josh Tickell, who looks like a young version of the movie director Ron Howard in a banker's blue shirt, appears out of place in his Venice Beach neighborhood, which is best known for its hippies, hipsters and long stretches of sand.

But the 29-year-old biodiesel expert, as much as anyone around this eco-conscious community, is on the cutting edge of earth-first attitudes. Next month, his second book on biodiesel, called "Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle East Oil Dependence and Make Money Growing Fuel," is due out in bookstores.

Tickell knows biodiesel firsthand. Next to his small, unassuming house, a few steps from an organic garden, there's a pile of big steel drums that contain biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from vegetable or animal fats that he uses to fill up the diesel engine tank of his Volkswagen Jetta.

There's nothing unassuming about what Tickell and a growing number of Hollywood tastemakers want to do with that fuel. With gasoline prices rising and foreign fuel dependence a growing national security concern, some believe biodiesel, which the U.S. Energy Department says is gaining converts faster than any alternative fuel in America today, can be a key to the country's energy future.

"Biodiesel is a piece of a (bigger solution) to lower our energy footprint in the United States. Wind, solar, ethanol, biodiesel, we need all these technologies so that when anything happens in the world we don't get hit with not having anything," Tickell said.

Click for images

On Saturday, for example, a group of artists, writers and designers in the Los Angeles area, who call themselves the Biodiesel Co-op, opened their own members-only biodiesel fueling station in nearby Marina del Rey. The station is in a trailer behind a group of office buildings off Highway 90 and serves as a convenient place to fuel up for people driving diesel-engine cars, in the absence of other like stations.

Even New York Gov. George Pataki within the last week has proposed to make biodiesel and ethanol available in state service areas and gas stations as early as this year.

Still, most people don't know what biodiesel is, and it's hardly a panacea to America's dependence on oil. Many other gas alternatives are beginning to take off among U.S. carmakers and in other countries. Brazil, for example, has shifted in recent years from gasoline to ethanol, a fuel made with sugar. Ethanol releases less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. Currently, ethanol comprises 20 percent of the country's fuel consumption, according to a recent report.

Automakers are busy developing hybrid gas-electric engine cars for the U.S. market, as well as hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars. Toyota, General Motors and virtually every other major automobile manufacturer are also tinkering with a technology called Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI), which could boost fuel economy in cars by about 20 percent and generate fewer polluting hydrocarbons.

Powered by peanut oil
Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, promoted the use of peanut oil to power his car before his death in 1913. At the world's fair in Paris in 1900, the Otto Company displayed a small car running on peanut oil.

Still, the car powered purely by vegetable oil has become merely a hippie phenomenon. Pouring a vat of veggie oil in your nice new Mercedes-Benz diesel engine car will surely gum it up or foul the engine. But for an old clunker, it might do.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is a fuel that has undergone 50 million road miles of tests in the United States, Tickell said. Tickell himself drove the Veggie Van across the country more than a year ago promoting the alternative fuel.

It's made by pulling glycerin out of the vegetable oil molecule. The process thins the molecule to make it compatible with the diesel engine. The technology to make biodiesel involves mixing the oil with an alcohol, which is typically methanol, and a catalyst, which is usually lye (or sodium hydroxide).

In the best case scenario, in the next 20 years, biodiesel could take care of 25 percent of our diesel needs.
--Josh Tickell, biodiesel expert

"At the base of the biodiesel reaction is essentially a mixing process. Sure, there are other pieces at the refinery like more purification and distillation to make sure the fuel is very pure," Tickell said. But in the hobby sense, he said, "If you can make a margarita, you can make biodiesel."

Still, biodiesel has shortcomings. In cold weather, it can "gel" in the car. The use of it can also increase emissions of nitrogen oxides, emissions that have been thought to help create smog-forming ozone.

But supporters of biodiesel, which have included President Bush, believe it's a viable fuel alternative because it's based on a vegetable oil and can be grown and produced anywhere in the United States. It's also a sustainable source of energy, meaning that it can be developed year in and year out despite the availability of fossil fuels. Biodiesel is also compatible with diesel engines and can be mixed into current supplies of diesel fuel.

Biodiesel also reduces several emissions, according to its supporters, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Tickell was inspired to learn about alternative fuels because he grew up in Louisiana near several oil refineries and where many locals were diagnosed with cancer. Some research suggests that there's a link between the illness and environmental pollutants caused by oil production.

While finishing college, Tickell worked on a farm in the former East Germany, where farmers made and used biodiesel as a fuel for cars and tractors. A cooperative of local farmers pressed canola seeds in a small refinery to develop the fuel.

"Between 10 and 20 percent of their land was dedicated to just growing fuel crops, and the rest, that fueled the entire farm," he said.

Eighteen months ago, Tickell himself made two phone calls to set up his backyard fueling station, one to a distributer of the pump and trolley for the oil drum and another to a distributor who sells the oil in bulk.

It costs him anywhere between $2.50 and $3.50 a gallon to buy the biodiesel, or roughly 10 cents more than the price of diesel fuel. Truckers who buy in bulk, however, pay between a cent below or above the price of diesel. But Tickell gets roughly 45 miles per gallon, and a full tank in his car usually lasts for about 500 miles of driving around Los Angeles. He fuels up once or twice every two months.

He argues that biodiesel is one of many investments in alternative fuels that Americans should be making to offset reliance on petroleum. After all, our reliance on oil keeps rising as our access to it keeps falling. The largest source of oil is in the Persian Gulf area, and as Tickell puts it, "if Iraq grew broccoli and Afghanistan grew sweet peas, do you really think we'd be there?"

"In the best case scenario, in the next 20 years, biodiesel could take care of 25 percent of our diesel needs," he said.

16 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
I wonder
How long it is until some big oil company buys out the rights to this technology and snuffs out another alternative fuel.
Posted by techguy83 (295 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I wonder
How long it is until some big oil company buys out the rights to this technology and snuffs out another alternative fuel.
Posted by techguy83 (295 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Will not ever happen
Higher costs, gelling problems anywhere it isn't warm year-round and ozone-detroying emissions doom this to failure.
Posted by chrisx1 (201 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Will not ever happen
Higher costs, gelling problems anywhere it isn't warm year-round and ozone-detroying emissions doom this to failure.
Posted by chrisx1 (201 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Where........
will all the veggies come from to make biodiesel? How about the ethanol--what resource is going to provide that? And lye--gotta be made from something. Once burned as biodiesel, they can't be reclaimed, pollutants are then an inevitable byproduct, and there are no good pollutants. With a finite amount of land suitable for farming and the world population growing as it is, how do we choose between farming for biodiesel and food production?
Posted by kenny-J (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Where........
will all the veggies come from to make biodiesel? How about the ethanol--what resource is going to provide that? And lye--gotta be made from something. Once burned as biodiesel, they can't be reclaimed, pollutants are then an inevitable byproduct, and there are no good pollutants. With a finite amount of land suitable for farming and the world population growing as it is, how do we choose between farming for biodiesel and food production?
Posted by kenny-J (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Nay Sayers Abound
To the where -- First it is Methanol and Lye used in the production of Bio Diesel -- and yes Methonal is a petroleum product -- however, it does not take much --

About "only in warm weather" -- WEll this is used in Germany -- ooops it gets very cold there -- what am I thinking!

On the oil companies that are going to suck up the technology and killit -- well you have a lot to learn -- even the energy companies are starting to use biodiesel as a mix youcan get B20 at several stations and not only in warm areas --

And to the writer -- It is not a only a hippie fuel -- think again on that one
Posted by wbtrotter (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Nay Sayers Abound
To the where -- First it is Methanol and Lye used in the production of Bio Diesel -- and yes Methonal is a petroleum product -- however, it does not take much --

About "only in warm weather" -- WEll this is used in Germany -- ooops it gets very cold there -- what am I thinking!

On the oil companies that are going to suck up the technology and killit -- well you have a lot to learn -- even the energy companies are starting to use biodiesel as a mix youcan get B20 at several stations and not only in warm areas --

And to the writer -- It is not a only a hippie fuel -- think again on that one
Posted by wbtrotter (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not a major player....
First, the comment was Veggie Oil not Bio Disel is Hippie Fuel.

With respect to Bio Fuel, What Crops and how many acres does it take to make 1000 gallons?
And of course whats the consumption of a tractor in order to produce the fuel?

With respect to cold weather. How much farming is done during cold weather? ;-)


Lye? Nasty stuff and a tad toxic ....

Methanol? Not a petrol by product. Other sources.

But its the nitrogen-oxyides thats a killer.
You're changing one output for another and which is worse? CO2 ommission can be controlled.

Sorry, bottom line, its an option but its not going to replace Petrol. Not to mention that our appetite for Petrol goes beyond fuel. Can you say plastics? ;-)
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not a major player....
First, the comment was Veggie Oil not Bio Disel is Hippie Fuel.

With respect to Bio Fuel, What Crops and how many acres does it take to make 1000 gallons?
And of course whats the consumption of a tractor in order to produce the fuel?

With respect to cold weather. How much farming is done during cold weather? ;-)


Lye? Nasty stuff and a tad toxic ....

Methanol? Not a petrol by product. Other sources.

But its the nitrogen-oxyides thats a killer.
You're changing one output for another and which is worse? CO2 ommission can be controlled.

Sorry, bottom line, its an option but its not going to replace Petrol. Not to mention that our appetite for Petrol goes beyond fuel. Can you say plastics? ;-)
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hmm
Hmmm, interesting concept, however, I can forsee that all the factory food corporation types, will vehementally object, to any process, that removes any farm crop overproduction or food production surplus and reverse their total control of the existing primary producer market system!

Further all taxpayers, will no longer have to fund any form of farmer susididy, thus allowing for a very large decrease in taxes across the board!

Oh well, like all good ideas, it ain't gonna fly, if the Factory Food Corporations have their way, which they will with Jack Abramoff clones, that surround the capitol centre elected representatives, in their legions!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hmm
Hmmm, interesting concept, however, I can forsee that all the factory food corporation types, will vehementally object, to any process, that removes any farm crop overproduction or food production surplus and reverse their total control of the existing primary producer market system!

Further all taxpayers, will no longer have to fund any form of farmer susididy, thus allowing for a very large decrease in taxes across the board!

Oh well, like all good ideas, it ain't gonna fly, if the Factory Food Corporations have their way, which they will with Jack Abramoff clones, that surround the capitol centre elected representatives, in their legions!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
local, sustainable, renewable the model for biofuel
Hi there,
I just spent this week-end at the Sustainable Biodiesel Conference 2006. Biodiesel is happening on an international level. Each region of this country has its own source of feedstocks or multiple feedstocks. Research is happening at all levels, federal, state, universities. Recycled oils; fryer oil, trap grease, water treatment sludge, waste pumice from wine and olives, waste oil from ethanol production, the list goes on as more people look at the waste stream. Then virgin oils can come from any oil seed including those that can be grown as rotation crops where the stalks can be turned into the soil to minimize soil erosion and add a natural pestiside to the soil. This is a industry in its infancy with much research to be done to make this better and better for the environment including emmissions. We learned that depending on the engine and the biodiesel blend in field testing, NOx can be reduced, this was a NREL study. The results of this testing is being released very soon. Is this a perfect solution, no. But with increased research, combined with better MPG vehicles, including diesel and ethanol hybrids, reduced consumption on the part of consumers. It is up to each person to make a personal decision to change how they do things and to get involved in advocacy organizations so thier one voice can become joined with millions of voices. Your monetary choices, combined with your political voice can affect change if you act. Last year I personally bought a diesel car and run B100 in it and joined my state biodiesel group. If you are interested email me klemons22@yahoo.com and I can forward you to a local group in your area.

Kari Lemons
Outreach and Education Director
Biodiesel Council of California
Posted by klemons22 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
local, sustainable, renewable the model for biofuel
Hi there,
I just spent this week-end at the Sustainable Biodiesel Conference 2006. Biodiesel is happening on an international level. Each region of this country has its own source of feedstocks or multiple feedstocks. Research is happening at all levels, federal, state, universities. Recycled oils; fryer oil, trap grease, water treatment sludge, waste pumice from wine and olives, waste oil from ethanol production, the list goes on as more people look at the waste stream. Then virgin oils can come from any oil seed including those that can be grown as rotation crops where the stalks can be turned into the soil to minimize soil erosion and add a natural pestiside to the soil. This is a industry in its infancy with much research to be done to make this better and better for the environment including emmissions. We learned that depending on the engine and the biodiesel blend in field testing, NOx can be reduced, this was a NREL study. The results of this testing is being released very soon. Is this a perfect solution, no. But with increased research, combined with better MPG vehicles, including diesel and ethanol hybrids, reduced consumption on the part of consumers. It is up to each person to make a personal decision to change how they do things and to get involved in advocacy organizations so thier one voice can become joined with millions of voices. Your monetary choices, combined with your political voice can affect change if you act. Last year I personally bought a diesel car and run B100 in it and joined my state biodiesel group. If you are interested email me klemons22@yahoo.com and I can forward you to a local group in your area.

Kari Lemons
Outreach and Education Director
Biodiesel Council of California
Posted by klemons22 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
BioDiesel is cool, but I want a PHEV.
What we need is PlugIn Hybrids!

<a href="http://www.PlugInAlliance.com">www.PlugInAlliance.com</a>
Posted by Yet Another Mark Johnson (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
BioDiesel is cool, but I want a PHEV.
What we need is PlugIn Hybrids!

<a href="http://www.PlugInAlliance.com">www.PlugInAlliance.com</a>
Posted by Yet Another Mark Johnson (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.