Biodiesel Project Motors Ahead

February 21, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids will soon become the first city in Michigan to actually try out biodiesel in the field, using biodiesel fuel blends in selected diesel engines in its fleet.

More than 500 gallons of used commercial fryer oil collected from a half dozen local restaurants is being recycled into 200- to 400-gallon batches of biodiesel as part of a city project launched last fall.

The first batch was produced a couple weeks ago.

Corky Overmeier, the city's director of environmental protection services, has a long-range goal of converting the whole city fleet over to biodiesel. He plans to start with one of the city's sewer cleaning vehicles, but he's taking it slowly for now.

"We're not going to just dump it in the vehicles until we are sure that the chemical reactions took place as planned," he said of the first batch.

There is some concern about biodiesel's performance in cold weather, since vegetable oil can gel as temperatures fall.

Petroleum diesel had the same problem when first brought to the market, but additive makers eventually came up with formulas that kept it from freezing, and they're trying to do the same for biodiesel, said Bill Stough, president of Sustainable Research Group, one of the city's partners in the project.

Other project partners are Sierra Environmental Consultants, which owns the production equipment, Crystal Flash, Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resource Institute, the Center for Environmental Study and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

With a 20 percent biodiesel blend, the additives already in petroleum diesel ensure the fuel won't gel at low temperatures, Stough said. That's the percentage the city will likely use in some of its diesel trucks, generators and tractors to start.

Overmeier said he'd like to increase the percentage of biodiesel in the blend as the warmer weather arrives and even try 100 percent biodiesel in at least one city-owned diesel engine — if his motor equipment superintendent will let him, he adds.

"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."

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

Its benefits include lower exhaust emissions and particulates, reduced odor and minimized black smoke. Biodiesel also has a natural lubricating effect on engines, so it reduces maintenance costs and slightly improves mileage.

The biodiesel processing equipment, located at the city's Market Avenue retention basin, runs used fryer oil through a conversion and filtering process and turns it into biodiesel. The equipment is running off a generator that's also fueled by biodiesel, Stough noted.

The goal is to generate 10,000 gallons of pure biodiesel over the course of the demonstration project, which ends in June.

Area residents may get a chance to see the processing equipment up close and in action at this year's Festival. The city may stage a demonstration using fryer oil collected from food booths, Overmeier said.

The group wants to raise awareness of the fuel and its availability, and to generate enough interest among bus systems, commercial truck lines and corporate fleets to get a large commercial operation started in West Michigan.

Anyone with a diesel engine vehicle is welcome to try out the fuel at no charge because it's a state-funded demonstration project launched on a $20,000 grant from the Michigan Biomass Energy Program.

People would have to bring their own petroleum diesel in to mix, either in their gas tank or portable fuel tank, Stough said.

Dave Ver Sluis, president of Sierra Environmental Consultants, said he wants to make sure it's of good quality before giving it away. He'd like to run the biodiesel through filtering equipment and run some samples of it. He began trying out some of the fuel in his own diesel truck last week, which he said, "will probably be the best test of all."

Even before production commenced, the word had spread and inquiries were coming in from school systems, municipalities, and diesel car and truck owners, Stough noted.

"I've been surprised that such a small project could generate so much interest with so many people," he added.

At the end of the grant program, the project team hopes to find an entrepreneur in West Michigan to take the equipment and all the market research the group has done and start a biodiesel business, he said.

"We'd be willing to work with them in trying to set them up in business. We would help them get loans or whatever they needed to do to keep the project going.

"There's probably only room for one business like this in the Grand Rapids area. But as long as the equipment is there, and it's sized for the volume of waste fry oil in the Grand Rapids area, we would like to see it continue running."

Right now biodiesel is a little more expensive because it's hard to get, Stough said. But once a delivery infrastructure is built, biodiesel should become as cheap as petroleum diesel.

Overmeier said the city has received numerous calls about the project, as well. He's gauging Grand Valley State University's interest in possibly setting up the biodiesel equipment in a laboratory.

Ver Sluis said half a dozen people have expressed interest in taking the project to the next level. His company is talking directly with parties in New York and Ohio, as well as locally.

Although the biodiesel processing equipment is fairly simple, it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to produce biofuel. Ver Sluis estimates 80 percent of the business turns on good old-fashioned know-how.

"We didn't just learn how to make this stuff overnight or just by reading books," he said. "It took a lot of trial and error."

It's one thing to make biodiesel on a small scale and another thing to make it in 500- or 600-gallon batches, he said, and there are all kinds of things that have to be addressed beforehand.

There are also regulatory issues to deal with, such as wastewater, waste disposal, fire hazard and worker safety issues, among others.

"What our company has in mind is to offer that total package," Ver Sluis explained. "We would come in on the front end and help someone assess their situation and determine if their situation is even right for biodiesel.

"If it makes economic sense and looks like there's potential there, then we can lay out a plan for them to achieve that. The equipment would be part of it."

There are thousands of people making biodiesel in 55-gallon batches or less in their garages. And then there are a number of large companies that operate multi-million dollar biodiesel plants.

But nobody is helping people make biodiesel on a medium-sized scale for use in their own businesses, Ver Sluis said, and that's what this project intends to do.

As Stough pointed out, soy oil is the vegetable oil that flows longest in cold weather, and Michigan is one of the largest producers of soy in the world.

"So there's also 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," he said.

He estimates the project will tally up to about $50,000 all told. The only reason it all came together, he said, was because of the "enormous amount" of volunteer time and resources project partners pooled to get it to this point. 

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