VIDEO: A biodiesel demonstration
Oil has been discovered in a Brighton backyard. And in a Somerville barbecue joint. And in a Chinese restaurant in JP. And in scores of other unlikely places throughout greater Boston. But before you head online to order your exceedingly expensive derrick, drill pipe, and dump bailer, you should know that these “discoveries” are more of the recycled and resourceful (rather than the geological) variety.
The fuel Bostonians are finding is biodiesel. Can’t afford the hefty price tag for a hybrid car, like a Prius? For a mere $5000 or so you could snag a used Mercedes and outfit it to run on waste vegetable oil and biodiesel fuel.
Above and beyond this low-tech ingenuity, many Boston fuel and utility companies are also beginning to embrace biodiesel. Suddenly, it’s becoming big business.
And it’s only taken a century for it to happen.
When Rudolf Diesel conceived of his compression-ignition engine in the 1890s, he wasn’t thinking about drums of viscous black crude or sooty, sulfurous exhaust. He was dreaming of agrarian self-sufficiency, of the small farmer able to grow his own fuel. He was thinking of an engine that could run on vegetable oil.
By the 1920s, however, the mighty petroleum industry had stepped in. Its henchmen saw to it that diesel engines were altered to be better suited to fossil fuels. And that was that. “Diesel” would thenceforth connote a smelly, poorly refined, petro-based pollutant belching from semi-truck smokestacks.
Now, after a century of plundering the Earth for ever-depleting oil reserves, a few wars, and untold quantities of planet-killing pollution, suddenly everyone is thinking about green fuel. In Chelsea and Quincy and Western Massachusetts, businesses have grown up out of the grassroots. And they’re rolling in green as they fill barrels with diesel distilled from stuff grown in the ground.
The benefit of biodiesel — and the larger category of biofuel, which can also refer to ethanol-based fuels made from corn, wheat, or sugar cane, and burned in gasoline engines — is substantial. It’s sustainable and replenishable. Its emissions are cleaner. It can be locally procured, and isn’t controlled by shady Middle Eastern despots. It’s inexpensive. And it’s much easier than you think. Now, if it was only legal . . .
Food for thought
For the past three or four years, from the back door of his Davis Square barbecue restaurant, Redbones, Rob Gregory has been fueling the biodiesel revolution, one barrel at a time. “This was one of the first key places that was giving oil to the cause,” says Tom Schneider, an advertising consultant with a keen interest in biofuels, and a friend of Gregory’s.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I met at Redbones with Gregory, Schneider, and Dave Staunton from Green Grease Monkey, a Brighton-based group that both converts cars to run on used vegetable cooking oil — better known as your run-of-the-mill grease — and makes small batches of biodiesel from that grease.
“Biodiesel,” of course, is a refined fuel that can power unmodified diesel engines. It may be produced from many virgin sources (soybean, flax, sunflower, canola, palm, hemp) or from filtered-waste vegetable oil that’s been treated via an esterification process to make it lighter and cleaner burning.
“Vegetable oil,” on the other hand — or “veggie,” “veg,” or simply “grease” — can power diesels that have been specially modified. It can be procured from the Frialator at the fast-food joint, pizza parlor, or Chinese restaurant around the block, and, if it’s clean enough, be poured right in.
The stereotype, of course, is that alternative fuels are for hippies and tree-huggers. Untrue, says Schneider: “The thing about biodiesel is, it plays to the mind of the redneck as well as the granola cruncher. The rednecks don’t want to line the pockets of any A-rabs, and do want to support the American farmer. The Cambridge granola crunchers are saying, ‘This is great, I’m saving the environment, and doing it locally.’ ”
After paying nearly $6000 a year to have his used grease trucked away by rendering firms, Gregory was happy to give it to Green Grease Monkey for free. And they were happy to take it. Whereas many restaurants will cost-consciously use and reuse their cooking oil until it’s all but worthless for engines, Redbones changes theirs several times a week. “Our grease is high-quality,” says Gregory. “They love our grease.”
Plans are in the works for Gregory and Schneider to start a co-op-style biodiesel club called Green Street Fuels. In the meantime, Green Grease Monkey is the most recognizable name in Boston’s veggie-fuel scene. “We’re taking trash and using it for fuel,” says Staunton, his blackened fingernails betraying a love for getting his hands dirty. “It’s the ultimate example of reduce, reuse, recycle.”
Don’t try this at home
On a chilly morning at Green Grease Monkey headquarters, just outside of Oak Square, Staunton shows how easy it is — relatively speaking — to convert a car to run on vegetable-oil grease, and to refine grease into biodiesel.