Veggie Car

Soybeans can be processed to make biodiesel.

Think about the last time you were stuck in traffic behind a big-rig diesel truck, fumes seeping into your car, making you gag. Now imagine that instead of toxic gas smells, you smelled french fries or popcorn. Imagine how much nicer your drive would be. If you were behind a biodiesel truck that is exactly what you would smell.

Although it seems far-fetched or like something out of a children's book, biodiesel is becoming more and more common. Organizations ranging from a coffee company in the northwest to school districts on the east coast are chucking their diesel oil for biodiesel. Even the United States Army is a huge consumer of biodiesel.

So what is biodiesel, and why does it smell so good? Biodiesel is an alternative fuel that can be made out of anything from organic canola oil to used cooking grease from Burger King. It is made from plant products, not fossil fuel, which means it is renewable. Unlike gasoline, which is processed from oil that is pumped from the ground from a limited supply, biodiesel is processed from vegetable or soybean oils. Biodiesel is literally fuel that you can grow. It does not have to be drilled out of the ground, we do not have to fight wars in Iraq to get permission to drill for it, and we do not have to rip up the national parks in Alaska to get fuel. It can be grown right here, in your backyard, and it smells pretty much like whatever you make it out of.

The process of changing the veggie oil into biodiesel is a relatively simple scientific process that strips the oil of glycerol (which can be used later to be made soap). Ester is left and processed further to make biodiesel. Amazingly enough, the whole process can be done in your own home.

History Lesson

jason west
Mayor Jason West

In a Fall 2003 interview with RiseUp Radio, New Paltz , New York Mayor and Green Party member Jason West discussed biodiesel. He spoke about how in New York (and elsewhere) "we can have biodiesel rather than petrodiesel and support this newer technology that is a cleaner burning fuel." Mayor West is correct in pointing out that biodiesel is cleaner burning, but he is wrong to state that it is a newer technology. In fact, biodiesel is not at all new, but has been around for almost a century.

When Rudolph Diesel initially designed the internal combustion engine, it was made to run on peanut oil. The original Fords, beginning with the Model T in 1908, ran on ethanol (another biofuel). It wasn't until the 1920s when car engines were modified to use fossil fuel-based gasoline, which was being sold at cheaper prices than biodiesel.

Things are now starting to come full circle with people getting back to the basics of biodiesel. The current biodiesel movement is big and getting bigger. Biodiesel is being revived by people from all over the political and environmental spectrum. From those who are concerned with the environment to the genetically modified soybean industry looking for a bigger profit, people are increasingly trying to get biodiesel in use. Cooperatives have sprung up all over the country and more and more people are learning about this alternative product.

"I'd say there are a couple of biodiesel movements happening in this country; the movement of the small producer and that of industry interests," explains Johanna Shultz, the Director of Environmental and Social Policy at Northern California's Thanksgiving Coffee. A small independent business, Thanksgiving has used biodiesel in their trucks for a year, and it is one of the many things they do to cut down on their emissions. "We started using biodiesel right around when the U.S. starting bombing Iraq last year, and were overjoyed that there's a renewable fuel that can be produced domestically by small businesses to fuel our fleet, and that we can support a solution like biodiesel."

Thanksgiving represents the biodiesel movement being driven by small producers. At the other end of the business spectrum are large corporations. According to Schultz, "The National Biodiesel Board advocates for biodiesel. Their governing board is also made up almost entirely of pro-GMO (genetically modified organism) soy interests." Since biodiesel can be made from soybeans, the soybean industry could profit greatly from an increased use of biodiesel. Although the movements and motives are varied, small businesses, environmental activists, and large corporations all have the same focus: to get biodiesel used.

The Drawbacks

dave williamson
Dave Williamson of the Ecology Center in Berkeley holding up some biodiesel.

For all the benefits of being renewable and cleaner burning, biodiesel, like everything else, has a downside... four actually. First of all is the cost. Depending on where you are getting your materials or if you are buying from a dealer, biodiesel is usually 80 cents more per gallon, according to Dave Williamson of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. His organization has been using biodiesel in recycling trucks for a long time and has recently overseen the transition to running all Berkeley diesel vehicles on biodiesel, including its emergency vehicles. It is slightly more expensive, but businesses and districts can get tax cuts and grants.

One other drawback is that biodiesel, according to Williamson, gets 17% less miles per gallon than gasoline-powered cars. The big problem with biodiesel, however, is the output of nitrogen oxide, which is a part of pollution, or smog. Biodiesel vehicles put out slightly more nitrogen oxide than normal diesel. Biodiesel supporters claim that these are offset by the absence of other toxic chemicals and the absence of problems relating to normal diesel. Williamson points out that with biodiesel there are "no oil refinery, oil fields, oil slicks, and oil wars." As Schultz puts it, "100% biodiesel is ten times LESS toxic than table salt, has 80% less carbon dioxide emissions than petrodiesel, and 44% less carbon monoxide emissions."

Even with these relatively minor downsides, the thing that seems to turn most people off is that biodiesel is only used in diesel cars. You cannot fill up your 1997 Taurus with fryer grease (but you can fill up that new turbo diesel Beetle across the street with biodiesel). To use biodiesel, your car has to have a diesel engine.

biodiesel bug
A bug that runs on biodiesel.

Though people come in contact with diesel every day, they do not seem to get it if they drive gasoline fueled cars. "When people hear for the first time or understand for the first time that [biodiesel] is only for diesel engines and not for gas engines -- which is what most people have -- they just turn off. They don't make the connection that all the food that they buy in a supermarket was brought there using diesel engines, which could be running on biodiesel. That their trash is always picked up with diesel technology not gas technology," explains Jon Bauer or the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective.

Just because you cannot fill up your own car on biodiesel does not mean that you should forget about it. You can be a part of getting biodiesel into use -- even if you are not using it directly -- by pushing your city or district to implement biodiesel in their fleets. Fleets of buses, trucks, and farming machinery are the largest users of diesel fuel, and pushing them to use biodiesel will greatly reduce the amount of diesel fuel used.

Bio vs. Electric

biodiesel pumps
Biodiesel Fuel Pumps
So you like the idea of biodiesel, but you don't want to make it yourself. Well biodiesel is becoming more and more available. Pumps are springing up everywhere. For a list of stations to pump your great smelling, non-war causing biodiesel, try: or

Even though biodiesel is a good solution, there are other alternative fuel choices that are being introduced to consumers. Everywhere you look there are advertisements for hybrid cars, gas and electric vehicles that are smooth and sleek. The Toyota Prius as well as Honda's Civic and Insight, have all done well on the market.

Is biodiesel a better alternative? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Shultz believes biodiesel is better because there is nothing left over. "Though most vehicle manufacturers are focusing on electric, there are still batteries that must be disposed of, therefore generating more waste. Biodiesel can be made by either growing it or by recycling used vegetable oil -- nothing is wasted. Even the by-product of the manufacturing process can be made into products like soap!"

Williamson seems to see problems with both. "In the future we will have all sorts of fuels: biodiesel, ethanol, biogas, electric (from solar) and hydrogen (from solar). None can entirely replace petroleum by itself. Nor should they. We need to get more productivity out of our energy resources and make intelligent transportation decisions. Walk. Ride a bicycle. Catch a train."

Calling all Youth

Cities, schools, and adults are catching the biodiesel bug, but what about the younger generation? What about high school students who are getting their first car and their first taste of buying their own fuel? People who are my age are growing up with impending problems, such as major environmental instabilities and global warming. Unless something is done we are going to have even bigger problems, and it is our generation that is going to have to be the backbone of the change. "In the near future we will either have no oil or very little oil. Future generations will lament that we burned it all instead of making something good and lasting," comments Williamson.

I was at a recent biodiesel event in Berkeley and was amazed at the diversity of the cars, but frustrated with the diversity of the drivers. Everyone was an adult. Where is my generation in this movement? Young people are growing up and learning to drive in a pivotal time in history. We have many choices now on how to fuel our cars. Why not chose what is obviously better for our planet? We may have to live with the mistakes of our parents' generation, but we do not have to continue with them. We can make a difference. Biodiesel is obviously not going to change everything -- it may not even be the ideal fuel -- but it is a start, and a very important step.

What You Can Do:
Look into biodiesel for your diesel automobile.


Buying a new car? You can get an older diesel or a brand-new one (you may need to change a couple of hoses on new cars but this is very simple). You don't have to give up style -- I recently ran across a biodiesel Jetta that I fell in love with.

If you are a youth and your school has an auto shop, talk to your teachers and administration about biodiesel. It can be made in chemistry class and used for drivers ed and auto shop.

Let your city officials know that you want them to look into biodiesel. It is so easy for the city to run biodiesel in buses, trash and recycling trucks, and many more vehicles. This will make the air a lot cleaner.

Darla Walters Gary is a staff writer for WireTap. She is 17 and impatiently awaiting high school graduation in June. She will be finally leaving the Bay Area to go to Sarah Lawrence College in August.

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