City Revs Up Biodiesel Fuel Project

September 23, 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 participating 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.

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 effect 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 nearly enough to cover the scope of the project, but all the partners have committed to pulling it off, “no matter what,” he noted.

Stough said the group is getting a lot of in-kind support from other businesses 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 toxins by 75 to 90 percent as compared to diesel.

And, 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 effects, 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 to 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 said. 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 to biodiesel.

Over the past year, the Grand Rapids Fire Department has occasionally used a 2 percent biodiesel blend, 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, said Mark Roberts, the city’s motor equipment director. The blend that was used happened to be a premium diesel fuel that a supplier offered at reasonable cost, he said.  

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

“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. What we have not figured out yet is what the best blend would be for the city.”

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 to do the best job, Overmeier said.

“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 bus systems, commercial truck lines and corporate fleets — in trying out biodiesel, too.

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

He said the Grand Valley State University’s Water Resources Institute has already expressed interest in using biodiesel in its 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 likely will 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.

The partners want the project to generate enough interest to get a large commercial operation started in West Michigan and hope to some day 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 to their business, solve an environmental problem, and help business and industry all at the same time.” 

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