From fryer to fuel in 24 hours

Marathon Bio-Diesel owner Jeff Lillie says that if all goes as planned, his first finished batches of fry oil-turned-fuel should be pumping by April 15.

Lillie is running a couple of weeks behind where he wanted to be, because he has to wait for a new pump — one to replace his other new pump, which the feds told him was already outdated. Without the pump and the approval, he can’t legally dispense the 1,200 gallons of fuel that are otherwise ready for a list of eager buyers. It was a bit of a setback, but he wasn’t about to give up on the project he spent the last seven years — and lots of his own money — working on. Meanwhile, Lillie’s been hitting the road trying to recruit restaurants that will let him pick up their used cooking oil instead of shipping it to the mainland.

The cleaner-burning biodiesel isn’t a new idea in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative and Keys Energy use a mix in their respective truck fleets, and Key West High School’s Alternative Energy Center has been working on making its own biodiesel for several years, running a Mercedes off the stuff.

But Lillie has a vision of taking a local waste product — fry oil — and turning it into an affordable fuel on a larger scale. The fuel works in any newer diesel engine, says Lillie, who’s been running his car and truck on it for months.

He says the potential becomes obvious when passing tourists stop to talk. " Tourists are getting the biggest kick out of it, " he says. They’re entranced by two things — it’s a local product, of sorts, and it produces a fraction of the emissions of traditional fuel.

Lillie says he has three regular restaurant sources so far — The Island Fish Co., Keys Fisheries and Laurie’s Deli — in Marathon. He also collected the waste oil from January’s Florida Keys Seafood Festival in Key West, February’s Sugarloaf Volunteer Fire Department fish fry and last month’s Original Marathon Seafood Festival.

" As we live in one of the most environmentally sensitive and unique places in the world, it is of the utmost importance that we do our part in promoting and advocating for renewable energy resources, " wrote Daniel Samess, chief executive officer of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, in announcing that the fledgling company would be recycling the Marathon festival’s oil.

As restaurants sign on, Lillie will add their details to his website and slap their logo on his truck. He also has " Thank you for recycling " decals that restaurants can add to their entryway doors or windows to tout the partnership. Lillie will give 55-gallon drums to participating restaurants for oil collection and empty them when they’re full.

Lillie estimates that if he could get 80 percent of the island chain’s restaurants on board, he can produce 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of biodiesel a week. He isn’t looking to make waves, either with the companies that pick up waste oil in the Keys or those that sell traditional fuels. He’s just on a mission to take something that’s generated in the Keys — waste oil — and keep it here, as a cleaner-burning fuel.

Making fuel from plant material — or its byproducts — is not a new idea. Rudolf Diesel ran his invention, a more efficient compression engine, on peanut oil instead of petroleum products in the 1890s. As an alternative fuel, biodiesel tends to wax and wane with the rise and fall of gas prices.

Because much of what is sold as biodiesel comes from virgin plant materials, proponents have to weigh its cleaner-burning benefits against possible detriments, such as use of food crops or deforestation. But waste vegetable oil — or WVO, as it’s known in the industry — raises none of those issues.

It’s an exciting prospect, taking a waste product and turning it into so many useful things. " We’re not throwing anything away, " Lillie says. Byproducts from the biodiesel process are glycerin, " a little bit of steam " and sawdust, Lillie says. The glycerin can be used to make soap, and the sawdust can be pressed into logs that make great fire-starters.

The longtime Keys resident is hoping he’ll be able to attract some investors willing to get involved on the ground floor of his project.

Lillie says he spent about three years building the multi-step system he’s using to convert old fry oil into fuel and about six months perfecting the process. " Quality control was what we were after, " he said.

It took about a hundred test batches to get the mixture that Marathon Bio-Diesel is producing now, which Lillie says is above the government standard. Each batch, which takes about 24 hours to process, is tested to make sure it’s meeting that standard, which Lillie says is fit for any vehicle with a diesel engine.

Through the testing process, Lillie found that Diesel’s oil of choice, peanut, is the worst to process, while healthier canola is the best.

Marathon Bio-Diesel’s headquarters is on a fenced lot, sandwiched between a Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority parcel and the U.S. Customs Service. There are storage tanks for unprocessed oil on one side, and the finished product on the other. Processing happens under cover, in a smallish wooden building with an array of tanks and tubes and wires running hither and yon. It’s a compact, organized operation, with a premium on safety.

" We can’t be safe enough, " says Lillie, always aware of his environmentally sensitive surroundings. That’s why he opted for a dry wash system, which uses sawdust to remove particulate matter from the biodiesel and can later be recycled into fire logs for use outside.

After clearing the pump hurdle, it’ll still be a while before Lillie will have a large enough flow to be able to sell to the general public, so while he welcomes donations of used oil, he asks potential customers " to bear with me. " Lillie sees work trucks and diesel-burning boats as his best future consumers, since they’re really getting hammered by prices at the pump.

A huge added benefit with having the alternative fuel out on the water is its biodegradable nature. " I’ve lived here long enough that I remember what it used to be like, and if we can preserve a little of that, it’ll be worth it, " he says.

Lillie’s confident that more restaurants will get involved as word spreads. He sees it as a draw for the restaurants as well, who can point to their participation as a way of making a difference. " They’re changing the world — one drop at a time, " he says.