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We took a little drive in the car of the future recently, and the exhaust of the future smells like French fries. That's because this car runs on non-polluting vegetable oil instead of sky-smudging, non-renewable, war-greasing petroleum.
If the car looked suspiciously like a 1984 diesel Mercedes, that's because the future is now. While hydrogen cars and other vehicular solutions remain daunting years away, a Huntington Beach distributor, i.i. Fuels, is among the vanguard of companies selling and promoting biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oil and alcohol that can power nearly any diesel vehicle on the road today while emitting almost no greenhouse gasses.
Made from oil-rich crops such as soy or from recycled cooking oils, biodiesel pollutes remarkably less than its petro equivalent, and the money can go to farmers in the Midwest instead of the duplicitous House of Saud in the Middle East. Biodiesel works, and it is here now.
Actually, it's been here for longer than a century. When Frenchman Rudolf Diesel introduced his engine at the Paris World Expo in 1900, he started it up and said two words to those in attendance: "Peanut oil." His idea was to build an engine that farmers could refuel with oil they grew, since gas stations then were few and far between. Diesel died under mysterious circumstances in 1913, and the petroleum industry instead promoted a dirty byproduct of gasoline refining as our diesel fuel.
Biodiesel sounds like a hippie's dream come true (yes, hemp oil works, too), but it also looks good to business people. Ericka Zenz and Ken Bishop, the clean-cut owners of i.i. Fuels, have been in the traditional oil biz for years and still sell plenty of gas, diesel and jet fuels. But they've been selling biodiesel for two years and say its sales account for half of their 600 percent growth from 2002 to 2003. They expect that trend to continue in the years ahead.
"There are reports predicting gas prices may go up to $3," Bishop said. "There are laws mandating that government diesel fleets go to cleaner-burning fuels in the next couple of years. The oil industry's answer, green diesel (a lower-sulfur petro-fuel), requires retrofitting vehicles at a cost of several thousand dollars apiece, making biodiesel a strong alternative. The energy bill before Congress contains credits for using biodiesel. And more people in the public sector are concerned about the environment or us going to war for oil. All this makes biodiesel a more viable option."
If you own or buy a diesel vehicle, there's no reason you can't be running on vegetable fuel by tonight. Just pump it in—there's no problem in mixing it with the petro-diesel already in the tank—and away you go, with similar performance, better mileage, less engine wear and that French fry smell. (On cars more than 15 years old, rubber hoses and gaskets may have to be replaced with synthetic rubber so biodiesel's solvent qualities don't degrade them.)
While biodiesel looks good compared to current gasoline prices—about $2.05 per gallon for soy-based B-100 (the blend of 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent alcohol) and $2.60 for the recycled-cooking-oil version—it's still high compared to standard diesel's price of about $1.60 per gallon. Availability is also a bitch: in the LA/OC area, the sole biodiesel retail station is Ifuel ITL in Cudahy in South LA, which is supplied by i.i. Fuels.
There are nearly 80 biodiesel producers in Europe and more than 1,500 service stations selling it, but still fewer than 10 producers in the U.S. and about 50 stations. The sole Southland plant converting cooking oil is in Coachella Valley, though another company is building a plant near Las Vegas so, Bishop said, they can "get all that grease out of the Strip."
Zenz and Bishop say the price should only go down and availability increase as public awareness grows and mandates phase out traditional diesel. A company called Grassolean has announced plans to open a chain of biodiesel stations, and actress Daryl Hannah has practically become an industry spokesperson, even venturing onto Fox's O'Reilly Factor to tout its benefits.
Until there's a station in your neighborhood, there are options that make fueling easier. Since biodiesel is non-toxic and less combustible, it's legal to store on your property, which many people do in 55-gallon drums or totes of 150 or 220 gallons, from which it's dispensed into your vehicle via hand or electric pumps. You can fill containers at the station in Cudahy or contract with i.i. to deliver the fuel. The web also abounds with recipes for making biodiesel at home, though Bishop suggests you skip that unless you're a scientist.
"It does take some effort and expense today," Bishop admits. "In the public sector, it's mostly just the people who are really dedicated to biodiesel who use it."
Most of i.i.'s business is with municipalities and other government entities, such as UC Irvine, which powers its vehicles with biodiesel. They're trying to spread the word to the public as well. At the last Lollapalooza (where the generators ran on biodiesel), Bishop and Zenz had an info booth, where, Zenz said, "People came up and were interested because they're into the environment, but they were a little more interested in the free condoms next door."