From spuds to sustainable fuel

It seems fairly certain now that at least half of the air pollution that gets trapped in the inversion-prone French Broad River Valley originates from the tailpipes of our own cars, trucks, lawn mowers, backhoes and tractors. (See “SAMI says we’re all to blame for ozone and haze,” Jan. 23 Xpress). And as our sprawled-out suburbs and strip malls multiply, so too does the average daily number of vehicle miles we travel — up 44.1 percent statewide between 1985 and 1994 (during the same period, the state’s population increased by 14.5 percent, according to the Land-of-Sky Council) — as well as the number of days when the state’s children, asthmatics and elderly folks are threatened by dangerously high levels of ozone, a chemical byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion.

The good news is you might not have to hold your breath till the Ford Motor Co. and the Bush administration fulfill their promises to develop an affordable hydrogen-fuel-cell engine (whose exhaust would consist only of water). Ever protective of their beloved mountain refuge, Asheville-area residents and officials are helping lead the national surge of interest in alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs).

Powered by vegetable oil

For a little less than $800, you can convert practically any pre-1995 diesel engine to run on french-fry grease. UNCA environmental-science student Jason Isbanioly is doing just that to his Volkswagen Jetta, using a kit he ordered via the Internet from the Hadley, Mass.-based Greasecar (www.greasecar.com).

But Isbanioly’s not just building his vehicle on spec. He and Winston-Salem music teacher Mark Wienand verified that the system works by spending last summer taking Wienand’s biodiesel-converted 1985 Jetta on a cross-country road trip from Charlotte to Seattle and back. They powered the car almost exclusively by hitting up Chinese restaurants for used cooking oil.

“We smelled like won-ton grease going down the road,” Isbanioly admits. But trailing the aroma of cheap takeout was a small price to pay, considering that their fuel was free. Most of the restaurant owners they asked were surprised but happy to oblige them, since they usually must pay rendering companies to pick up their used grease. (The companies then recycle it as a livestock-feed additive.) The two grease jockeys also left plenty of enthusiastic alternative-fuel converts in their wake.

With the addition of a simple preheating system to lower the oil’s viscosity, most diesel engines can run on practically any kind of grease, from salad oil to bacon fat, according to Isbanioly and other biodiesel advocates. Biodiesel vehicles get the same mileage as those that run on conventional diesel fuel while emitting smaller amounts of smog-producing chemicals such as nitrogen oxide. And the alternative fuel’s higher density provides more power with less wear on the engine. There’s no need to add sulfur (another significant source of air pollution) to improve lubrication. And though the vegetable-based biodiesel emits nearly as much carbon dioxide as the fossil fuel, it does so in a “closed loop,” Isbanioly notes, releasing “the CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by last year’s crop.”

“You can have an entire diesel fleet of McDonald’s delivery trucks running on their own french-fry grease,” predicts Isbanioly. “Farmers can produce their own fuel for their tractors.”

The greasecar (which has dual fuel tanks) did require a total of 40 gallons of conventional diesel fuel during the trip, however, since the pre-heating system requires some to be burned when the engine is started. (Like most currently available AFVs, biodiesels are usually hybrids, adapted to using conventional fuels in conjunction with the alternative, or at times when the conventional stuff is all you can find.)

Their trip, which garnered some national press, was mostly trouble-free. The only sticky situation the two environmentalists ran into came when they crossed the border into — you guessed it — Texas.

“We couldn’t find any vegetable oil that wasn’t locked up. The dirty little secret of biodiesel is that the rendering companies own most of the used grease — they have contracts with the restaurants.” They found one sympathetic restaurant owner near the Louisiana/Texas border who wanted to help out however he could.

“He sold us a big block of Crisco, which got us from the border all the way to Austin. We let the car sit overnight. The next morning, the car ran 20 miles and then quit. The Crisco had congealed in the fuel lines.”

If biodiesel becomes widespread, proponents point out, rendering companies will probably unlock their grease vats to sell the fuel to motorists for healthier profits than they can get from wholesaling it to the nation’s dwindling stock of livestock-feed manufacturers.

Fleets of the future

If you’ve ever wondered why the exhaust from Asheville’s diesel city buses is surprisingly nonstinky, it’s not because they’re descended from the Vanderbilts’ carriages. All 16 fleet vehicles run on K-1 kerosene, which burns cleaner than petroleum diesel, puts less wear on the engines, and doesn’t produce sooty black clouds of fine particulate matter, which recent studies indicate carry about the same lung-cancer risk for city-dwellers as living with a cigarette smoker.

Till late last year, Asheville Transit Authority Director Bruce Black had hoped his agency would be able to meet the stringent EPA emissions requirements that take effect in 2007 by switching the bus fleet to what he terms the “clean bridge technology” of compressed natural gas, the lowest-emissions fossil fuel currently available. The city’s Public Works Department had received approval for a state grant to fund the construction of a CNG station that could fuel all of Asheville’s official fleet vehicles, as well as city residents’ AFVs.

Then the state’s budget crunch hit, and the grant was rescinded — putting the plans for CNG on indefinite hold. Now, Black is looking at converting to the less romantic but more affordable “clean diesel” technology that diesel manufacturers are developing, which promises to improve even on K-1 by relying on low-sulfur petroleum fuel, particulate traps, catalytic converters and other emissions-control devices.

“We’re wide open to the most environmentally benign propulsion system available. I think before long, we’ll be looking at [hydrogen] fuel cells,” says Black, who saw prototype fuel-cell buses being used in New York City three years ago. “We’d like to go as environmentally clean as we can. It’s the right thing to do, especially in an area so dependent on tourism.”

That’s also the prevailing view at the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, which expects to receive its first two AFVs in late April or early May, replacing aging members of the fleet of cars its inspectors use. After originally ordering two hybrid CNG/gasoline cars, the agency had to switch to hybrid electric/gasoline-powered Toyota Priuses after the CNG station fell through. A hybrid-electric car’s gasoline engine runs a generator that powers the electric motor, which primarily drives the wheels during normal driving or acceleration. When the car is decelerating or braking, the car falls eerily silent as the wheels themselves spin the electric motor, which acts as a generator to charge the car’s battery.

The technology reflects an industry in the early stages of transition — not unlike the mass-transit situation in Asheville, which is beginning an inevitable evolution to a nonpetroleum-based future.

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