If you're stuck in traffic on Penn Avenue and the distinct odor of fried foods wafts into your window from the exhaust pipe of a nearby pimpin' deep-blue Mercedes 300D Turbo, you're riding behind 22-year-old Wilkinsburg resident Nathaniel Doyno, founding partner of the fledgling non-profit operation Steel City Biofuels (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What are the various functions of SCB?
We conduct research and educational workshops showing folks how to produce fuel at a low cost, using recycled vegetable oil. Our fuel will be used to run vehicles for other non-profits like Construction Junction, Grow Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Voyager and Zany Umbrella Circus. We're an open-source model that other communities can copy, teaching them how to gather the network of people necessary to create a biofueled community. We've partnered with Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) [and] Rosedale Technical Institute, the premiere diesel mechanic-school in the country. We also do policy work.
Where did the idea for local biofuels advocacy come from?
When I was at Cornell [University], I met a guy who runs a company called Liquid Solar that converts cars to run on straight vegetable oil. He was working with a team called Engineers Without Frontiers. I was a civil-engineering student, so I joined that team and began researching and learned how to convert cars. I started Cornell Biodiesel Initiatives, where we built a small processor and pushed the university to adopt biodiesel for their fleet. In Berkeley, California, all municipal trucks run 100 percent biodiesel. I'd like to see Pittsburgh do the same.
Can any diesel engine use biodiesel?
Yes. A few fuel-system modifications have to be made, because biodiesel degrades rubber components. Your hoses need to be synthetic and the engine filter needs to be changed a couple of times during the initial transition because the fuel works as a cleansing agent. It'll cost about $200 to get started, but after that, you can use any blend of biodiesel and regular diesel.
What's the advantage?
The benefits are environmental. It's domestically produced and it burns cleaner. The by-products are non-toxic and usable: water and glycerin. We're partnering with local soap-makers to market soap!
How do you plan on convincing soccer moms in Monroeville to run Crisco in their minivans?
Biodiesel is big in the Midwest because it supports farmers and the domestic economy. Republicans and Democrats love it. Everyone loves it because it is about America. It's grown and made here. McDonald's is here with all their fryers. To demonstrate feasibility, we're gonna run all the box trucks for Construction Junction on biodiesel; we'll run it in schoolbuses and a PAT transit bus. Once people trust it and see that it works, they won't question it. Recently, Giant Eagle grocery stores became a sponsor.
Will Mom have to concoct fuel in the family garage?
There's a huge homebrew movement, but not everyone can produce high-quality fuel that won't damage their engine. It's a fairly complex process, a chemical reaction involving caustic agents, flammable chemicals and methanol. You need the right equipment. Besides, in two years, she'll be able to buy biodiesel at gas stations.
So petroleum suppliers don't oppose what you're doing?
Big oil is all over biodiesel because they already own the distribution infrastructure -- the blending terminals, trucks and refineries. It doesn't matter what goes through the pumps because they still get a service fee per gallon. It isn't a threat because it extends the petroleum oil supply and it helps them seem more on the ball environmentally.
Pennsylvania has six processing plants set to open up in the southwestern region and tons of capital investment. When these plants go on line, restaurant owners will start to get paid for their used oil. It'll be a commodity, and the whole equation is going to change. The big shift will happen when the price becomes competitive and it's widely available. That's what the market does.
How will farmers be affected?
There will be a growing demand for fuel crops. We've already got a farmer in Somerset who will be planting for us. And algae farms will be popping up because it aids in crop productivity. That's going to be dirty work! And then there's "Bio Willie"! Willie Nelson has his own chain of biodiesel pumps for truckers. The profits go to Farm Aid.
Will the biodiesel Parkway smell like a giant Lenten fish fry?
Whatever was cooked in the oil affects the smell, so it's little weird when you've combined all the oils together and you've got Chinese, McDonald's and fish sandwiches. It smells delicious.