City Looks To Lead Biodiesel Project

September 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The city of Grand Rapids plans to take the lead and set an example for other communities by testing out more environmentally friendly, biodiesel fuel blends in some of the city’s fleet. 

It’s the first project of its kind in Michigan.

In the project being rolled out by the city, used fryer oil collected from local restaurants will be recycled as biodiesel fuel, which will be blended with petroleum diesel at varying levels for the city’s use and for anyone else who might want to try it out. 

Biodiesel, which can be made from animal fat or a variety of vegetable oils, works in any diesel engine with few or no modifications and performs like diesel fuel, according to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

The alternative fuel can be used in pure form or blended in varying amounts with regular diesel, the most common level being 20 percent biodiesel to 80 percent diesel, says the NBB.   

Biodiesel has a natural lubricating affect on engines, so it reduces maintenance costs and slightly improves mileage, added Bill Stough, president of Sustainable Research Group (SRG), one of the city’s partners on the project.

SRG is overseeing technical management of the project.

Other partners are Sierra Environmental Consultants, Crystal Flash and Rapid Engineering.

All partners intend to switch some of their diesel engine vehicles to the alternative fuel for public demonstration purposes, trying out both pure biodiesel and biodiesel blends in different strengths to judge the difference.

The goal is to generate 10,000 gallons of pure biodiesel over the course of the demonstration project, which will take about a year.

Since some of the biodiesel will be blended with petroleum diesel, the volume of production will actually exceed 10,000 gallons, Stough noted.

SRG is a private consulting and development firm established in Grand Rapids earlier this year by Stough, Tom Fehsenfeld, president of Crystal Flash, and Paul Murray, environmental manager of Herman Miller.

As Stough puts it, SRG is in the business of showing businesses, municipalities and institutions how environmental issues of the future can be used to their advantage.

“One of the roles we play is to facilitate advancement of sustainable technologies. Biodiesel is just one of the things we’re doing,” said Stough, who has 20 years of experience in environmental consulting and research.

The city secured a $20,000 state grant for biodiesel demonstration from the Department of Consumer & Industry Services’ Michigan Biomass Energy Program.

Corky Overmeier, the city’s director of environmental protection, said thus far CIS has been doling out the funds primarily for biodiesel research. 

“We were kind of the first ones to step up and say we’d like to show how this works out in the field,” said Overmeier, who is managing the project on the city’s end.

“They’ve been real interested in watching how this unfolds in Grand Rapids. The idea of their program is to make the public aware that petroleum-based fuels aren’t the only way we can provide energy to our residents.”

The $20,000 grant is not close to being enough to cover the scope of the city’s project but all the partners committed to pulling it off, “no matter what,” he noted.

Stough said the group is getting a lot of in-kind support from other business and municipalities.  

“This whole project is small, but we hope it will capture the imagination and attention of the rest of the community so we can accelerate the development of biodiesel in this area,” Stough added.

Recent studies by the EPA’s Health Institute and others have revealed that the largest source of cancer risk in urban areas is the breathing of diesel fumes.

Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have passed the health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act, and has been shown to reduce carcinogenic air toxics by 75 to 90 percent compared to diesel.

Besides reducing air toxic, biodiesel fumes smell a lot better — similar to French fries or potatoes baking. 

The point is, if an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil meets or exceeds all of the characteristics of petroleum diesel without the adverse health affects, why not use it, Stough asked.

Furthermore, EPA guidelines that take effect in 2007 will require significantly lower sulphur and particulate emissions for diesel fuel, providing additional incentive.   

The main concern is biodiesel’s performance in cold weather as vegetable oil can begin gel as temperatures fall, rendering a vehicle hard to start or even useless. 

“Petroleum diesel had the same problem when it was first brought to the market, but over the years additive makers came up with formulas that kept it from freezing, Stough recalled. He said formulators already are working on biodiesel additives to solve that problem.  

Until then, many people are sticking with a 20 percent biodiesel blend as a precaution.

Overmeier said the city is considering use of biodiesel in some of its diesel trucks, generators and tractors. His task is to try to convert the whole city fleet over to biodiesel.

Overmeier said the city wanted to manufacture biodiesel to show it could be produced from waste fryer oil and to generate a quick supply of it at a low cost.

“Then we could start using it in our vehicles to demonstrate to the city manager and other that it works fine and there are no issues with it, as opposed to going out and buying some.”

Over the past year, the Grand Rapids Fire Department has occasionally used a 2 percent biodiesel blend when suppliers deliver it, but the city’s fire trucks are not part of the project at this time.

In fact, the fire trucks will probably be the last of the city’s fleet to be pulled into the project, for obvious reasons, said Mark Roberts, the city’s motor equipment director.  

As it is now, the 2 percent blend is so low it has a negligible effect and doesn’t reflect a significant change from diesel, he said. 

“What we have not figured out yet is what the best blend would be for the city. Because as you get higher in the blends, especially in a place like Michigan where it’s colder, you have to be very, very careful about the processing of your fuel.”

Overmeier wants to try 100 percent biodiesel in at least one city-owned diesel engine to find out if there are any problems with using it in pure form.

If a 20 percent or 50 percent blend does some environmental good, obviously 100 percent ought do the best job, Overmeier said, but he recognizes the higher percentage blends can cause problems in the winter. 

“From my standpoint, if I can use 100 percent six months out of the year and use a lesser blend the rest of the year, that’s the best I can do environmentally and that’s what I’m trying to find out.”

The group wants to interest “big users” like public and school bus systems and corporate truck fleets in trying out biodiesel.  

“Our intent is to find people that have large diesel fleets,” Overmeier said. “The idea is to be able to go into their facility, tell them everything we know about biodiesel and try to get them to convert their fleets over.

“We want to get the public more aware of the fuel and its availability.”

He said the Grand Valley State University’s Water Resources Institute has already expressed interest in using biodiesel in the institute’s research vessels on Lake Michigan. 

Sierra Environmental Consultants designed the equipment that runs commercial fryer oil through a process that filters out solid particles and turns it into biodiesel.

The mobile equipment is now being built and will likely be operational in January. It will be located at the city’s wastewater treatment plant for the duration of the project, Stough said. Crystal Flash will do the fuel blending.

At this point, the group is interested in talking to anyone who might want to try biodiesel, Stough said. And since it’s just a small grant for a short time period, they want to get the biggest users possible to test it out.

The partners want the project to generate enough interest to get a large commercial operation started in West Michigan and, hope to someday see a biodiesel plant in every major Michigan community.

“The thing that excites me personally about this is the tie in with the local agricultural community,” Stough remarked.

“When you look at all the vegetable oils that flow the longest in cold weather, soy oil is one of the best, and Michigan is one of the largest producers of soy in the world.”

“So there is an opportunity, with all the troubles farmers are having, to bring some value added business to their business, solve an environmental problem and help business and industry all at the same time.” 

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