Alternative fuels: Biodiesel

Local advocates of alternative fuel use want diesel engine owners to get on board with biodiesel, which they say could be produced locally on a commercial scale using leftover cooking oil.

It’s a concept independent islanders are sure to love, says Green Living & Energy Education President Alison Higgins.

“We can reuse fryer oil from our restaurants to make biodiesel right here in the Keys, which makes it an attractive option for self-sufficient Conchs,” Higgins said. “Our short-term goal is just to raise awareness, and our long-term goal is to create a commercial supply of locally-produced biodiesel.”

Higgins said any diesel engine can run on a blend of biodiesel and what she calls dino diesel — or petroleum-based diesel fuel. She said diesel engines were originally designed to run on biofuel, and warranties will not be voided if an engine is powered with it.

Mark Woods, who teaches marine engineering at Florida Keys Community College, is spearheading a movement to create a biodiesel cooperative at the college that would serve the general public.

“We import roughly 1,000 gallons of cooking oil into the Keys each week,” Woods said. “Once the restaurants are done with all this waste oil, it has to be collected and trucked to the mainland. We are taking a viable fuel product off the islands that we could be using as an energy source instead.”

Woods said the co-op’s centerpiece would be a biodiesel processor that has been constructed on the FKCC campus on Stock Island. The processor will take used cooking oil and combine it with alcohol and lye to produce two usable products — biodiesel and glycerin.

“When your grandmother made soap, what she threw away was biodiesel,” Woods said. “Co-op members will power their engines with the biodiesel, and we’ll look for a consumer to buy the glycerin. No more oil will have to be hauled off the Keys, and we’ll produce an energy source from what was once a waste product.”

Co-op members would bring their oil to the processor and either furnish their own alcohol and lye or buy them from the co-op. For a donation, they would then walk away with biofuel capable of running any vehicle, boat or generator with a diesel engine.

To start processing biodiesel through the co-op, Woods needs to purchase the alcohol, which will cost around $1,100. Anyone interested in donating funds to make that initial purchase can contact him at the college.

Woods said 50 gallons of oil can be converted into about 35 gallons of useable biofuel that can be used straight up, but is usually combined with petroleum-based diesel fuel.

Scott Newberry, CEO of the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, said his company’s switch to biodiesel blend two years ago has been a rousing success. All FKEC vehicles and equipment that have diesel engines are now running on a 50/50 mix of biodiesel and regular diesel.

“Biodiesel burns cleaner and will actually clean the engines out. When we first started using it, it was clearing the gunk out of the engines, so we had to do more filter changes initially. But other than that we’ve had very few problems,” Newberry said.

Since making the switch to biodiesel blend, Newberry said FKEC is at least breaking even or paying slightly less for fuel overall.

“It’s not any more costly [than diesel], that’s for sure, and anytime you can do something that helps reduce our dependence on foreign sources and supports domestic farmers, I like it,” he said.

Two other sizable fleets using a biodiesel blend in the Keys belong to the city of Key West and Monroe County Public Works.

On a smaller — but no less significant — scale, Key West High School physics teacher Josh Clearman and his honors class of 25 students have built their own 80-gallon biodiesel processor on campus this year. They collect used cooking oil from Key West restaurants and turn it into fuel for a 1985 Mercedes Benz they bought as a class project.

The class has a goal of someday making enough biodiesel to run the school district’s buses. Clearman presented a four-year plan to the school board to expand the biodiesel project, with the goal of not only reducing pollution but also saving money.

“We use 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel every year in the district,” Clearman said. “Right now it costs $3.59 per gallon. We can make it for around $2 per gallon.”

But for Clearman, the biodiesel project is about more than dollars and cents.

“This is for our youngsters, and for all of us really, to learn all the tools we need to become energy independent,” Clearman said. “This is meaningful education. What started this school year with just an idea has exploded into something quite magnificent.

“We’re learning, and that’s the key point of all of this.”