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Vegetable fuel
Veggiemobile, from the kitchen to the tank of your vehicle
By Silvia Casabianca

Published in Etc.(Marco Eagle) on Jan 13, 2008

Captain John Puig of Naples Biodiesel knows that harvesting oil at local restaurants might involve people asking permission to smell or take a ride in his 1983 Mercedes Benz. Asking for a ride is understandable but, why taking a whiff of the car? Well, when Puig comes to collect waste oil, they want to verify that his vehicle has in fact the funky French fries smell they’ve so much heard about. The kitchen staff also want proof that the Mercedes engine works well even if it runs on the oil they discard and consider trash.

The vehicle, indeed, smells like fries but it also happens to run quite smoothly, Puig asserts. “When you go to the restaurants to get the waste cooking oil, you make friends with the people in the kitchen. They get interested in what you’re doing and then want to take a look. They say, ‘let me smell’ or ‘does it really run on vegetable oil?’” said Puig, who was the first person in Naples to retrofit a diesel engine to make it run on straight vegetable oil (SVO).

Up to day Puig has converted several cars, a couple of trucks and the New Horizons of Southwest Florida’s bus. He has also shared his know-how with other enthusiasts to help them work on the conversion of their own vehicle. In his website (www.naplesbiofuel.com) you can download a 70-page document with an introduction to biofuel in general and a brief introduction into SVO.

You can find Puig’s motivation in his believe in sustainability. “By running on 100 percent recycled vegetable oil, we are radically lowering vehicle emissions with a fuel cost of less than $.05 per gallon,” he explained.

However, this price may go up a bit if drivers of these vehicles opt to pay a tax that they are presently not contributing. “Technically we’re not allowed to use SVO in Florida. The government’s position is that vegetable oil is not a possible fuel,” Puig explained. People using SVO cars, are presently not contributing the 25 or 23 cent roadway-tax included in the price that they would be paying if using diesel or gas. In a political move, Puig deemed convenient to pay such tax to grant governmental recognition of vegetable oil as fuel. A month ago he became the first person to obtain a Department of Revenue road tax license.

“It will be an honor system,” Puig said. “You submit the tax yourself. As they accept our road tax we get the sense of having a real entity here.”

Becoming an environmentally sound mechanic

Fifteen years ago Puig was working with his friend Duffy Gardener who is an organic farmer, when he realized that Gardener’s tractor ran on vegetable oil. “This is crap,” Puig said, with the authority of a first-rate mechanic, “you’re going to wreck the engine.”

Growing up with his father, who owned a gas station and provided automotive service in a central New Jersey town, Puig gained experience with the breakdown of a vehicle and the skills and understanding necessary to rapidly and precisely identify vehicle problems. “I have a high degree of competency in mechanics,” he said. “When you learn mechanics, it’s all about problem solving. You learn certain protocols that you apply to fix something. You follow a protocol to get the engine running.” In the case of a diesel engine, the protocol says you need to use a good quality fuel and Puig was convinced that vegetable oil couldn’t be it.
Puig’s curiosity was piqued and he dived into researching about vegetable oil as fuel, only if to prove that he was right and his friend was making a great mistake.

“I was educated to believe that diesel fuel needed to be used, otherwise you’d ruin the engine,” Puig said. “Many mechanics have the same frame of mind, for the same reason. All have been trained in the same way.”

To his surprise Puig’s research led him to realize that vegetable oil not only didn’t wreck the tractor, but it actually lubricated and protected the engine and was more efficient than standard diesel.
“It meets all the parameters for diesel oil,” Puig explained. “And it also reduces emissions and provides lubrication to the inside of the engine.”

If there was a fuel that could reduce global warming and prevent acid rain because it removed a hundred percent of the sulfate emissions, he had found something really significant and had to try it himself. Puig became more and more interested.

It took two years of research before Puig got convinced that vegetable oil was of excellent quality and that diesel cars could be converted into vehicles to run with biofuel. Two more years along the road and he started doing the car conversion job himself. He has been adapting cars to run on vegetable oil since 2005, a job that takes perhaps no more than two full days to be done.

“It’s actually my main source of income,” Puig said, although this is not a full time job for him. Puig is involved in several charitable endeavors that include working with an orphanage, creating community access for disabled individuals and organizing boat outings with children who suffer from cancer. This is what really takes most of his time.

Are these the cars of the future?

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has a shuttle service that is fully powered by biodiesel fuel (hybrid, not straight vegetable oil). The number of cars running on vegetable oil in the state of Florida is probably in the thousand, Puig thinks. Maybe a hundred cars in Southwest Florida are already running on SVO, three or four in Marco Island.

Volkswagen or Mercedes Benz are the only manufacturers in the United States releasing diesel cars. When converted to run on SVO, these cars don’t look very different from a standard one, except for an extra fuel tank in the trunk that has a line attached to the basic fuel supply line and a sign on the back window that reads: “Powered by 100% Vegetable Oil” or “www.naplesbiodiesel.com”. You would also find a number of extra pipes under the hood and a cylinder that permits proper heat exchange and maintains the fuel at a certain temperature to prevent clogging.

Is there a biofuel revolution in a foreseeable future; one comparable with the diesel revolution that took place a century ago? Actually, the concept of an engine that runs on vegetable oil is by no means unheard of.

When the body of Rudolf Diesel, was recovered in the Scheldt River ten days after disappearing from a ship, in 1913, coal industrialists were among the murder suspects. The reason? A refrigerator engineer, Diesel had discovered a revolutionary engine that alarmed the monopolies that held control over almost all energy production. They could visualize Diesel as a dangerous rival. His engine was cheaper and more efficient than the stream and petrol engines of his time. Diesel’s 1873 design consisted of an internal combustion engine using a fuel that could be ignited without a spark. If of a vegetable source, this fuel, and he proposed peanut oil, would be readily available for small farmers and industries, precisely the people he wanted to empower. In 1897, such an engine was successfully operated for the first time. Today, diesel engines move most United States freight, but most of them powered with petroleum based fuel.

About a million new diesels are introduced on to American roads every year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “diesel engines emit nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that have been tied to serious health problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Diesel exhaust has also been linked to increased incidence of lung cancer.”

Many people do not like diesel trucks on the road. The diesel engine fumes smell and look badly but researchers guarantee that the engines are efficient and cleaner than vehicles using gas. They produce 31 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline engines. Even though diesels produce higher per liter greenhouse gas emissions, you can run more miles on a tank of diesel than on the same sized tank of gas. One of the problems with diesel (and North America tends to produce a dirtier diesel) is its high sulfur content, which is responsible for the acidification of lakes and streams (acid rain) and the damage of certain trees and sensitive forest soil.

Politically and environmentally sound solution

Biodiesel goes a step further towards fuel efficiency and sustainability. It offers a safer, cleaner alternative to petroleum diesel. It is a type of biofuel made by combining animal fat or vegetable oil, through a simple refining (transesterification) process where vegetable oil is combined with an alcohol and a catalyst (lye) to create biodiesel and glycerol. It can be used in vehicles and is beginning to be used for electricity generation and heating.

Biodiesel can be made of different oils such as peanut, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, palm, olive, coconut, hemp, and sesame. And some refine it on their own garage! Fans say that biodiesel engines don’t contribute to acid rain or global warming, like cars running on fossil fuels do.

“In January 2001, the Biodiesel Final Rule made it possible for fleets to earn EPAct credits for use of biodiesel blends of at least 20%. This rule does not make B20 (a 20% blend of biodiesel with diesel) an alternative fuel, but gives one credit for every 450 gallons of pure biodiesel used in biodiesel blends.” (Source: www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/epact/about/epact_fuels.html).

With fuel prices above the $3 mark and the concerns about fuel reserves, the use of biodiesel derived from biological sources has increased.

Producing your own biodiesel could be dangerous, though, and lead to exploding garages and dead up diesels along the side of the road.

This is not the case with the cooking oil used by veggie drivers. Other advantages of SVOs are that they don’t produce black smoke like diesels do, and its spills are biodegradable.

“The fuel supply is granted,” added Puig. “There is a large supply of vegetable oil that is not being utilized.” One of the main components for fryer oil is soybeans, produced by almost half a million farmers in 60 percent of the states of this nation. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that hotels and restaurants in the United States generate 3 billion gallons of waste cooking oil per year. This amount could fill tanker trucks arranged bumper-to-bumper from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and back, according to an EPA report.

The EPA declared in august 2006 that they had not evaluated vegetable oil as a motor fuel, even though they recognize biofuel in general. The United States Department of Energy has already acknowledged biodiesel as an alternative fuel and biodiesel can be used for vehicle credits under the Energy Policy Act.

According to Puig, Naples restaurants seem happy to give away their waste oil that otherwise they would have to take to Collier’s solid waste facility to be recycled in order to divert waste from landfills and sewer pipes. To be suited for fuel use, cooking oil must not be heated to very high temperatures. After collecting the oil, a filtering process is required and it’s done through a simple devise invented by Captain Puig.

“We have an innovative processing system that provides the user with highly effective and efficient oil cleaning. This is for anyone interested in vegetable fuel for any use,” Puig’s website says.

Presently there are seven biodiesel manufacturers in the United States. Besides being cleaner, manufacturing diesel fuel from vegetable oil, recycled cooking grease or animal fat reduces the dependency on petroleum based oil, reduction that has global political implications.

“If my father lived,” Puig said, “he would be a big advocate for what we’re doing, because it’s mechanically sound.”

Interested parties can find detailed information on the Naples Biofuel Organization’s website: www.naplesbiofuel.com

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© Copyright 2006 Eyes Wide Open and Silvia Casabianca. All Rights Reserved. This website's content may be copied in full, with copyright, contact, creation and information intact, without specific permission, but only if used in a not-for-profit format. Otherwise, permission in writing from Silvia Casabianca is required.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this website is mostly based on personal opinions and experiences of Silvia Casabianca, unless otherwise noted. Advise offered is meant to help users take informed decisions and not to replace medical care by a qualified practitioner.

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