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My biodiesel Bug

Some bumps in the road to saving the planet.

August 15, 2008|Judith Lewis | Judith Lewis is a freelance writer specializing in energy and the environment.

IT SEEMED, at the time, like such a good thing for the planet. In the winter of 2005, I turned in my red, gas-hungry Jeep Wrangler for a near-new, diesel-burning Volkswagen Beetle. Inspired by a number of pioneering friends, I would fill my little green slug Bug with a nontoxic, sweet- smelling fuel made from vegetable matter called biodiesel.

Unlike cars that run on straight, unprocessed vegetable oil, my BioBug required no mechanical conversion. Diesel fuel can be made out of any kind of grease: petroleum, lard, soybean oil, even, as one New Zealand powerboat racer proved two years ago, liposuctioned fat from human hindquarters. With a weatherproof shed and two 55-gallon drums, I turned my driveway into a home fueling station. And there, in full view of my greener-than-thou neighbors, I smugly filled my tank.

I never expected to save much money. Unless you brew it yourself with methane and lye, biodiesel is expensive. (This spring, it topped $5 a gallon.) I considered the cost worth the payoff. Biodiesel smells not like French fries but clean and nutty; if you spill a little on your skin, no worries -- unlike gas, it won't poison you. Diesel engines emit more smog-forming nitrogen oxides than do their gasoline equivalents, but on balance, biodiesel burns cleaner than petroleum diesel or gasoline. Plus, the biodiesel crops take carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and release the same amount back into the atmosphere when they burn. Biofuels are thus said to be "carbon-neutral" fuels.

Which doesn't mean, I soon learned, that they are perfect.

Just before this summer of $70 fill-ups began, a story broke that had a lot of biofuel enthusiasts quaking in their Earth Shoes. Biofuels, we were informed, were robbing the world of its food. Crop prices were soaring; hungry people were rioting in the streets of Haiti; fertilizer runoff streaming down the Mississippi had doubled the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico -- all because farmers were racing to cash in on the bonanza by planting biofuel feedstock.

At first, I blamed corn. Corn-based ethanol, which benefits from congressional mandates and a generous production tax credit, takes almost as much energy to produce as it yields. An article in the journal Science last winter claimed that all the carbon dioxide emitted during its production makes corn-based ethanol more polluting than gasoline. Biodiesel made from soy or palm oil may hasten climate change too: Amazonian rain forests have been leveled to grow those crops to satisfy biofuel-crazy Europe.

I nearly took a razor to my "BioPowered" bumper sticker.

Perplexed, I called up Kent Bullard, one of the founders of the Los Angeles Biodiesel Co-op, which dispenses biodiesel from stationary trailers parked in Torrance and Silver Lake. Bullard assured me that no rain forest suffers for the co-op's 126 members -- all of its fuel comes from used cooking oil. "We get a certificate of analysis for every batch of fuel delivered, like a birth certificate for our fuel. We know how it's made and how far it's coming from."

That's great, but there's only so much used cooking oil to go around -- what about the rest of us? Since my former supplier stopped home deliveries, I fill up at Conserv Fuel in Brentwood. On the phone, owner Kris Moller offered little in the way of guilt relief. "Our supplier won't tell us exactly what the blends are," he said. "Probably most of it is virgin soy."

Moller admitted that soy-based biodiesel has "some minuscule effect" on the world food supply. "But what are we going to do? Just say we're completely dependent on petroleum and leave it at that? We're on the first generation of biofuels. When the first IBM mainframe came out and used up an entire room, did we throw it out? No. We evolved it. We're learning how this fuel works."

And, he said, learning how to make it greener. Bullard and Moller contribute ideas to the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, a collective effort to define a standard for small-carbon-footprint fuel. Both anticipate progress on feedstock -- finding new lipid-rich plants that require little water and space to produce enormous vats of grease.

Solutions loom. Stanford University biology professor Chris Somerville suggests producing ethanol from Miscanthus, a perennial grass that yields twice the biomass per acre of any other grass. Mark Edwards, a professor at Arizona State University, thinks an even better source might be algae. It's Edwards who makes me feel smug again.

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