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Joe Rappa shows off the final product.
Joe Rappa shows off the final product.

Biodiesel: Brew Your Own Fuel

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Tomorrow in Canton the North Country Sustainable Energy Fair showcases alternative energies and conservation techniques, from wind and solar power to "green" construction. One presenter will share his experience turning used vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel to power his car. David Sommerstein has this profile.

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The equipment for brewing a mini-batch is simple.

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Joe Rappa’s Volkwagen Quantum looks like any car.  It’s a maroon station wagon with 180,000 miles on it.  It’s got a diesel engine with the classic diesel rattle.


[car starts]


But even though we’re inside SUNY Canton’s auto lab, there’s no black exhaust, no acrid diesel smell.  Instead, it smells like a kitchen.


Some people say it smells like French Fries, some say it smells more like hamburgers on the grill than anything else.  But everyone smells something different with biodiesel.


Rappa teaches automotive courses here at SUNY Canton.  He lives in Mexico, NY, near Oswego.  Several times a week he commutes 120 miles in this car powered by biodiesel – a fuel made from used vegetable oil he collects from local restaurants.  He says anyone with a diesel car can make their own.


It might be a bit unnerving at first because we’re so conditioned to put the same fuel in our car, y’know that you go make something in your garage and then go pour it in the tank of your car goes against everything you’ve been ever taught for the last 20 years that you’ve been driving.


Joe Rappa is tall with a moustache and a mischievous smile.  You can tell he gets a kick out of making his own fuel when most people are worrying about the price of gas, the places our oil comes from, and what it does to politics and the environment.  But Rappa’s not brewing biodiesel for conservation sake.


I don’t consider myself a big polluter, either.  I’m a tinkerer.  I always have to fool around with something.  My dad always used to kid me from the time I was a little kid, you’re not happy unless you’re screwing around with something.  My bicycle worked fine, I’d take it apart.


As an adult, he bought a diesel car.  One day, he started reading about biodiesel on the Internet.


And the more I looked at it, the more I thought, that’s kind of silly, but I bet I could do that, and got a hold of the chemicals and started fooling around and making mini-batches, and once I was confident the mini-batches were actually biodiesel and something I can burn in an engine, I started making bigger batches and putting the stuff in my car.


Today Rappa spends most Sundays in his garage brewing up to 120 gallons of it at a time.  He’s considered a leading expert in the Internet-based biodiesel community. 


Most of the enthusiasts he e-mails with are environmentalists.  They see biodiesel as a way to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and clean up the black exhaust cars and trucks belch out their tailpipes.  Biodiesel creates less than half the smog-causing ozone of regular diesel.


The particle emissions out of the tailpipe, 70% less simply by switching fuel, 70-80% less hydrocarbon, 70-80% less carbon monoxide, those are some serious numbers.


Nitrous oxide levels are a little higher.  For Rappa, the big number is price.  It costs him 54 cents a gallon to brew the stuff. 


[rubber gloves]


Rappa snaps on rubber gloves to show me how it’s done.  Basically you mix methanol and lye to make methoxide.  The ratio depends on the amount of animal fat in the vegetable oil, which you figure out through what’s called a titration -- and the amount of biodiesel you want to brew.


Now we just add the methoxide.


Rappa uses old pepsi bottles for this demonstration and a wine carafe to hold the oil.


Put our lid on there.  Give it a shake.  Immediately it turns to a milkshake consistency.  And the reaction only takes a couple seconds to take place.  You mix it thoroughly and it’ll start to get dark as my biodiesel starts to form.


The result is honey-colored biodiesel, with glycerine – basically soap – settling on the bottom as a by-product.


Rappa cautions this takes practice.  You have to boil the vegetable oil to remove the water.  And you need to make sure you separate the biodiesel from the glycerine.  In fact, most people who use biodiesel in their cars buy it commercially.


That number is growing.  The National Biodiesel Board predicts biodiesel production will increase by 20 million gallons this year.  Most it is made from soybeans.  Some producers use mustard seed and rape seed oil.  But a U.S. Energy Department study says there’s enough used vegetable oil and other waste grease to produce 500 million gallons of biodiesel each year.  That’s plenty to keep Joe Rappa’s car on the road and encourage others to join him.


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