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Recipe for Fuel Calls for Grease

The Region

Refinery at Port Hueneme Navy base will turn used cooking oil into biodiesel.

October 31, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

It smelled like popcorn, stinky cheese or paint, depending on who was doing the sniffing.

But to Kurt Buehler and a hundred others gathered at Naval Base Ventura County on Thursday, the vial of amber-colored fluid also was a whiff of the future.

Buehler, a chemical engineer at the Port Hueneme base, presided over the dedication of a biodiesel refinery -- the first ever to be located at a U.S. military installation.

The "plant" itself could fit into the back of a pickup truck and looks like one of those microbreweries popping up in trendy pubs.

But the Navy has big plans for its little refinery.

Using cooking oils from the base, Buehler and a partner, Russell Teall, expect to demonstrate that the military can easily convert used cooking grease into cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel.

They will produce the fuel in 200-gallon batches over the next year, testing its performance on base vehicles. Their goal is to show that the small production unit can make up to 1 million gallons of biodiesel a year.

If the project is successful, the Navy may consider reproducing the refineries at bases nationwide to power diesel vehicles and equipment, Buehler told those attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"Instead of taking used cooking oils to the dump, you convert it to biodiesel, and that is cost-effective," he said.

Joe Jobe, executive director of the National Biodiesel Board, said the Navy's participation marked a significant step forward in the acceptance of biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum fuels.

The fuel's use has grown from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 15 million last year, he said.

Jobe, who flew in from the board's Missouri headquarters for the event, said it was appropriate that the refinery was at a California military base.

California is the nation's largest agricultural producer and could lead the way in planting crops, such as rapeseed or soybeans, that produce oils for biodiesel.

"California has a lot to say about what is going on in this country ... and the state is important to biodiesel," Jobe said.

Several dignitaries attended the event, including three Ventura County supervisors; Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura); the base's commanding officer, Capt. Paul S. Grossgold; and Capt. William J. Beary, who heads the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center.

The biodiesel project started two years ago when Teall teamed with Buehler to pitch the idea.

Teall runs Biodiesel Industries in Santa Barbara, a private business that markets biodiesel technology and equipment.

Made from animal fats or plant oil, biodiesel emits about half of the "greenhouse gases" of standard diesel and can be used in any diesel engine with little alteration.

Although it is becoming more widely available, biodiesel costs up to 50 cents more per gallon than regular diesel and can be hard to find.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks was among many attendees holding out hope that the alternative fuel would catch on.

"It's nothing but positives -- from our health to the environment," she said.

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