Fuel for Thought

Locals make own biodiesel in garage

Ollie Kroner’s car doesn’t look all that different. True, a mid-1980s Mercedes sedan in decent shape will turn a few heads but it’s not the kind of vehicle meant to draw attention. There is the emblem, though: a few letters added as a prefix to the engine designation on the trunk, turning “turbodiesel” into “bioturbodiesel.”

It spurs some curiosity, but doubtless goes unnoticed by most.

The smell is a little more unique. The car fires up like any diesel, with the “chug-chug” rumble reminiscent of a semi-truck. But there’s no belch of black smoke and no leaden, oily fumes. In their place is an acrid smell, not unpleasant, but certainly not the typical diesel aroma.

Kroner’s car runs on biodiesel, a fuel made from leftover cooking oil. It’s a throwback to diesel’s roots — Rudolph Diesel touted his invention as an engine that could run on vegetable oil — and is an increasingly popular alternative to petroleum diesel, with all of its political and environmental baggage.

Alternative fuels like biodiesel are becoming Big Business. The EPA has mandated the domestic use of 800 million gallons of biodiesel in the U.S. market in 2011.

The biodiesel production capability of domestic producers has grown from a half-million gallons in 1999 to more than 700 million gallons, and the National Biodiesel Board estimated that American facilities have the capacity to produce more than 2 billion gallons of the stuff, if they were working full-out.

But that, unfortunately, is a big “if.”

Biodiesel burns cleaner than petroleum diesel and could theoretically be produced from domestic grain, but the cost to produce it on the scale needed to replace petroleum diesel is immense. Between the energy required to grow the plants, extract the oil, process it into biodiesel and ship it, you’re burning as much or more than you’re making.

And don’t forget the land cost: Biodiesel-producing palm farms are accelerating deforestation in some parts of the world, with millions of acres slated for clear-cutting.

But Kroner, with his unique old car and a desire to break from the status quo, might be on to at least a partial solution. For the last year, he and seven other associates in Northside have been operating an informal collective to produce biodiesel on an ultra-local level. The raw oil comes from local restaurants, is processed in a garage-based blending facility and is used by local drivers to get around Cincinnati.

“It’s never really reached a formal state, like a co-op,” Kroner says. He explains that the group came together through mutual connections and casual conversations; he discovered some of his neighbors shared his interest in switching over to biodiesel.

“It became apparent that everyone had a piece of the puzzle,” he says. While one person with no time or technical expertise could put up start-up funds, others with technical know-how, or even just the free time to run the distillation equipment, filled in the gaps.

“Nobody had the whole package, but together it all came into place,” he says.

The group eventually included financial backers, people with knowledge of biodiesel chemistry, members with contacts in Cincinnati’s restaurant scene and a handful of people willing to regularly run the day-long distillation process.

Talk turned into action when a group member found a farmer who had run his tractors on biodiesel but was looking to sell his blending equipment. Soon thereafter, the team moved the distillation setup to one of their garages (members wouldn't disclose the location for security reasons).

Northside resident Joe Marunowski, a former brewer for Samuel Adams, brought familiarity with piping and large-volume liquid handling to the mix. He’s also played a role in fine-tuning the oil-to-biodiesel process.

The process doesn’t have much in common with brewing beer beyond the need to blend and move large amounts of liquid, Marunowski says, but one could argue that the chemical processes involved in home-brewing a good ale and blending a useful batch of biodiesel require a similar experienced touch.

“You filter the oil, you blend in the catalyst, and it’s all Mother Nature and the glycerin (a byproduct removed from the fuel during the distillation process) settles out,” he says, describing the basics behind making biodiesel. But, he adds, it’s not just a simple “pour A into B” procedure.

Once the collective obtains cooking oil from restaurants or local events (“Taste of Cincinnati was a goldmine,” Kroner says), they filter leftover bits of food out of the oil. This, Marunowski adds, is one of the harder and more time-consuming parts; something like cleaning a Fry Daddy, but on a massive scale.

The cleaned oil is then mixed with a carefully measured amount of catalyst — chemicals that cause the alcohols in the oil to separate from the glycerin that gives cooking oil its slick texture.

Marunowski says the amount of catalyst varies from batch to batch, depending on how long the donor restaurant used the oil before getting rid of it. Too much or too little catalyst can turn the oil into useless sludge, and with a capacity to produce 45-gallon batches, the collective works carefully to avoid that messy problem.

When everything goes right, the end result is spectacular for how little it differs from the petroleum diesel we’re all used to.

The collective’s cars — a mix mostly of Mercedes and Volkswagens — don’t need modifications to handle the new fuel. If a collective member needs to go further than his or her allotment of fuel will reach, it’s a simple matter of stopping at any gas station that sells diesel. Increasingly, the members find biodiesel blends on the pump at stations in Ohio.

Marunowski has drawn attention over his car, but less for it being biodiesel than for it being an unusual model. He drives a new Beetle with Volkswagen’s efficient TDI engine. More than once, gas station attendants have run out to warn him he’s putting the wrong fuel into his car.

“You see a lot of diesel Jettas and Golfs, but you just don’t see a lot of these,” he says.

The informal, unnamed collective blending biodiesel in a Northside garage is keeping a fairly low profile, in part to manage growth if and when they expand their operation. But they’re not alone. From several groups on the West Coast to co-ops in Washington, D.C., and Boston, individuals are taking it upon themselves to break away from the old petroleum-based transportation model.

Smaller operations can sometimes move faster than Big Business, with its many interests and inherent fear of risk.

Certainly, it’s possible that the near future will find more collectives quietly popping up in the city, with members unobtrusively bucking giant oil companies through the old-fashioned virtues of friendship, neighborly commitment and a little hard work.

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