February 8, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Fast-food fat: Future fuel for cars

Fast-food fat--it's what's for cars Oren Rubin says you can help wean America off oil imports by going to Long John Silver's more often.

The deep fat fryers and waste oil containers of America house a large, untapped source of transportation fuel, says Rubin, business development general manager for BiOil, a biodiesel company based in Sausalito, Calif. Namely, billions of gallons of animal fat and waste vegetable oil that can be converted into domestically produced, cleaner-burning biodiesel, says Rubin, among others.

BiOil's plan--which will require sizable funding--is to build a national network of disposal centers, with help from biodiesel producer Pacific Biodiesel, based in Kahului, Hawaii, to collect a substantial portion of the 3.9 billion gallons of waste vegetable oil produced at fast-food eateries, refine it and then sell it to trucking companies and drivers.

"We rely on people to eat Chinese food, fast food, whatever," Rubin said.

More significant, big agribusiness has its eye on the grease bucket too. Last November, chicken giant Tyson Foods announced it has formed a renewable-fuel division. Rival Perdue has said it is exploring the idea as well.

Tyson harvests approximately 2.3 billion pounds of chicken, hog and animal fat from its operations each year. The fat could be converted into about 300 million gallons of fuel, according to the company. (Industrial oil gets measured in pounds, while fuel oil is measured in gallons.)

"That's the equivalent of 20,000 barrels a day of feedstock that can be turned into renewables," Jeff Webster, senior vice president of strategy and business development for Tyson, said at an investor conference last year. "It's the equivalent of bringing renewable content to one-third of the (diesel used) on highway diesel within the U.S."

Companies such as Imperium Renewables in Washington state already operate refineries that convert soy or palm oil from farms into biodiesel. A few individuals, meanwhile, fill up their biodiesel vehicles at fast-food restaurants. Cars need to be retrofitted, however, before they can accept oil straight from the Dumpster.

Methodically collecting and refining waste biodiesel for sale to vehicles that have not been retrofitted could help transform biodiesel from an asterisk as a fuel source into a something of a sustainable industry. In the U.S. last year, only 150 million gallons of biodiesel were produced while Americans consumed 62 billion gallons of regular diesel.

Additionally, a focus on animal fat could help insulate the industry from the increasingly erratic pricing in the commodities market. Some expect that prices for vegetable cooking oil will begin to rise in a few years because of biodiesel demand. Animal fat already costs 70 to 80 cents less than new vegetable oil per pound, according to Tyson, while restaurants have to pay people to get rid of waste vegetable oil.

No guarantees on the menu
Success, though, is not guaranteed. Smithfield Foods a few weeks ago shut down its biodiesel subsidiary after two years because it determined that the project, based in Utah, was not economical. Smithfield BioEnergy, however, differed from these other projects in that it was trying to make diesel by mixing vegetable oil and methane culled from the manure of the animals on its farm.

"The nutrient content of the animal manure produced on our farms proved to be more than 50 percent below published estimates," the company said in a statement. Smithfield, however, will explore ways to exploit the methane.

Converting waste oil or animal fat into biodiesel is a somewhat straightforward chemical process. Through the transesterification process, glycerols, which make the oil more viscous, are removed from the oil. Hobbyists who run their cars on deep fat fryer oil today have to insert an additional tank inside their cars or trucks where the oil can be heated up before going into the engine. The heating counteracts the effects of the glycerols. (Biodiesel hobbyists also filter the oil.)

As a fuel source, biodiesel has distinct advantages over conventional diesel based on fossil fuels, say advocates. When burned in cars, it produces far less carbon dioxide in most cases and can produce fewer sulfur compounds, although an extensive debate surrounds the sulfur issue. Drivers can get fewer miles per gallon, but the difference is not big, and the cost--with subsidies--is somewhat similar to regular diesel. Many big diesel consumers buy their fuel directly from refiners so biodiesel makers don't have to worry as much about being snubbed by Big Oil gas stations.

Interestingly, biodiesel was the first form of diesel. Rudolf Diesel ran his first engines on peanut oil. Petroleum-based diesel, however, became popular because it cost less.

However, variations in the feedstock lead to different kinds of biodiesel. Soy-based biodiesel, for instance, can produce more sulfur. Also, animal fat biodiesel doesn't work as well in colder climates. Mixing different types of feedstocks can ameliorate the problem. Animal biodiesel can also be used for heating.

If anything, the economic circumstances of waste oil appear to make it an attractive feedstock. Most restaurants and fast food outlets, which are largely independently owned by franchisees, currently pay waste-disposal companies such as Waste Management 10 to 15 cents a gallon to haul away their used oil.

By contrast, BiOil will pay fast-food outlets for their oil. The company hopes to pay only a few cents a gallon, but that's more attractive than paying to have it hauled away, Rubin says.

"When we tell them we are going to pay them, they are like, 'Excuse me? I don't get it,'" he said. "But once they hear the explanation, they love it. They can even advertise themselves as a green restaurant."

Industrial disposal companies resell the oil they collect. Some of it goes to cattle feed, while the rest gets processed into glycerols for the soap and cosmetic industry. Here too, though, biodiesel is a better bet economically. Biodiesel can sell for around $2.75 a gallon, more than waste oil. BiOil and others can also sell the glycerols they extract during the process.

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges in entering the market will be getting started. A plant that can churn out 5 million gallons of biodiesel a year can cost a few million dollars, and erecting the plant requires going through regulatory processes.

BiOil hopes to raise $97 million--an exceedingly large amount for a start-up--to build 30 processing plants. Rubin admits that the company hasn't produced a gallon of biodiesel yet either.

But unless burger sales plunge, the potential will be there.

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15 comments

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BioDiesel versus waste oil
This article is somewhat confusing because it uses the term
biodiesel interchangeably to describe both biodiesel and waste
oil. There are two distinct ways to use waste oils in a diesel
engine, and the author describes them both, but confuses the
issues because of the misuse of the word biodiesel.

Biodiesel is in fact the result of transesterification of waste oils.
Commercially available biodiesel is almost always mixed with
petroleum based diesel. 5% Biodiesel with 95% diesel is called
B5 diesel and can be run in nearly all diesel engines wihout
modification. B20 is 20% biodiesel and can be run in many
diesel engines, especially older ones, as can higher percentages
of biodiesel- usually made by hobbyists.

Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) is the most common term used for
waste oil that is burned in a diesel engine. As the author
described, to run WVO, a diesel car is usually fitted with tank
heaters, heated fuel lines, and/or heated fuel filters. This makes
the WVO have a similar viscosity to diesel fuel, allowing the
engine to run on a pure WVO fuel once the system is hot.

The idea of collecting waste oils from restaurants is not new, in
fact in many towns one of the oldest businesses likely to be
around but not known is the rendering plant. The rendering
plant collects the used oil from the grease dumpsters in the
back of buildings, just in a lower-key manner than normal
garbage pick up. In the old days, and in some cases today, the
rendering companies disposed of animal carcasses by rendering.
Google "rendering plant" for more info.

In many areas, WVO enthusiasts and biodiesel hobbyists can
purchase the waste oil they need for about $1 a gallon (sold by
the pound).

The article has one more glaring error- there is certainly more
than 150 gallons of biodiesel made each year. Many hobbyists
make more than that, so that must be a typo.

Also, many estimates I've found on the web still show that even
using all restaurant waste oil for biodiesel and WVO would only
cover a single digit percentage of America's total amount of
petroleum consumption.
Posted by sandsunsurf (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Great clarifications
I know that I have read quite a bit on biodiesel in the past. One of the oft misunderstood issues in WVO is that it does take some hardware (for lack of a better word) modification to the fuel system in order to achieve the expected results.
Posted by sumwatt (69 comments )
Link Flag
Looking for funding
This is all old news isnt it? I mean years old!

Probably just looking for funding for BiOil.

KieranMullen
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Link Flag
Newer Diesels don't have trouble either
I've run my 2000 F250 on home made B100 before without any ill effect. Usually I run B50 to prevent gelling. The big factor is fuel filter changes. Bio-Diesel is an excellent detergent and often cleans up the crud DinoDiesel left behind. Crud that ends up in your fuel filter. You'll have to change your fuel filter after the first tank and probably the second before all the residue gets cleaned.
Posted by mr3vil (42 comments )
Link Flag
Don't fully understand your post
The difference between biodiesel and waste vegetable oil is descriibed in the story. The terms are also not used interchangeably. I cut some technical detail out because of length. Here is what is in the story.

Converting waste oil or animal fat into biodiesel is a somewhat straightforward chemical process. Through the transesterification process, glycerols, which make the oil more viscous, are removed from the oil. Hobbyists who run their cars on deep fat fryer oil today have to insert an additional tank inside their cars or trucks where the oil can be heated up before going into the engine. The heating counteracts the effects of the glycerols. (Biodiesel hobbyists also filter the oil.)
Posted by michael kanellos (65 comments )
Link Flag
Don't fully understand your post
The difference between biodiesel and waste vegetable oil is descriibed in the story. The terms are also not used interchangeably. I cut some technical detail out because of length. Here is what is in the story.

Converting waste oil or animal fat into biodiesel is a somewhat straightforward chemical process. Through the transesterification process, glycerols, which make the oil more viscous, are removed from the oil. Hobbyists who run their cars on deep fat fryer oil today have to insert an additional tank inside their cars or trucks where the oil can be heated up before going into the engine. The heating counteracts the effects of the glycerols. (Biodiesel hobbyists also filter the oil.)
Posted by michael kanellos (65 comments )
Link Flag
true it can save us but it can drastically reduce the ozone depletion if its done right and we make a gornment owned corn field or fields that are stictly for the makeing of corn oil it could help out alot of our fuel problems as well but dropping the fossil fuels to make room for these are costly thats why i say we keep them until we are able to get the Corn Oil up and running it may just save us alot of pain and suffering in the long run
Posted by metal-man (1 comment )
Link Flag
More freedom fries! More H2s!
"Fast food" as we know it could not exist without a cheap-petroleum-based economy and car-dominated infrastructure.
To think that either biodiesel or ethanol will save us from going off the fast-approaching cliff is as foolish as hoping for a "hydrogen economy." (Hydrogen is an energy storage medium, NOT an energy source.)

This time next century, "fast food" will be whatever stray dog or pigeon meat you can catch and eat before some other starving peasant steals it from you. And our lazyass grease-guzzling car-culture will be largely to blame for this avoidable catastrophe.
Posted by hoatzin (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Freedom Fries!
DEAD ON Correct!
Posted by ggf1938 (4 comments )
Link Flag
You can do it now...
Most diesel engines will run off straight (new or filtered) cooking oil with no processing or modification. Standard engines can run off it with modified engines.

Using Bio-WASTE is more feasible that using food stock to create fuel. Too many people go hungry in the world to burn food in cars. Waste is the only way to go.
Posted by umbrae (1073 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Conversion?
Where can I learn more about what I need to do to convert a standard engine?
Posted by jt369 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Yes but
This is good for making our energy system more efficient, but it won't replace but a sliver of consumption, AND of course it took an amazing amount of oil to grow the food to feed to the animals, to transport the food and the animals, etc., so it really isn't replacing oil, it's just increasing efficiency.
Posted by Clouseau2 (329 comments )
Reply Link Flag
think
Mac is evil

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Posted by darix2005 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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