Cooking Oil Cars Turns The Table On High Fuel Prices

A growing number of Americans are setting up mini-refineries in their homes to produce biodiesel, a fuel made from waste cooking oil which is cleaner and cheaper than the petrol sold in gas stations. The sky-high price of crude oil is scaring everyone.

"It's better for the engine, way better for the environment, it's cheaper, but it depends how you price your labor," said Dan Goodman, an entrepreneur in residence at the University of Maryland Business School who runs his Mercedes on biodiesel.

There are two ways to get on the biodiesel bandwagon, Goodman said. Either you change the engine and just put in waste oil, which would not be strictly legal in the U.S., or you can modify the fuel into biodiesel, which is legal and works in any diesel car.

Biodiesel plants are a boom industry in America, but thousands now make fuel in their garages from the oil left after frying french fries or scrounging around restaurants and food factories. "It's easy when you know how to do it," Goodman said, though he warned that the process "can be hazardous," since it involves flammable products and caustic vapors that require a well-ventilated production site.

"You filter the waste fried oil to remove the glycerol, the most sticky part, and then replace it with an alcohol molecule (methanol) and lye (caustic soda)," he said. Goodman makes about 300 gallons (1,135 liters) of biodiesel a day on a farm in Maryland, where his helper Matt Geiger twice a week brings huge jerricans of the precious "yellow grease" he collects from restaurants in the towns of Olney and College Park. The homemade fuel keeps 15 school buses running in the area, Goodman said.

Most biodiesel fans have organized into cooperatives that make biofuel from soy oil instead of used cooking oil. The groups have been growing over the past few years, but they still represent a minuscule part of the U.S. energy sector.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel production has tripled since 2004 to 75 million gallons last year. This year, it is expected to double to 150 million gallons. In comparison, U.S. consumption of traditional diesel fuel extracted from crude oil stands at 60 billion gallons per year.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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