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Seeds of Change

Can biofuels energize Pittsburgh -- and save the world?



Joy Batera, it seems, has something in common with George W. Bush and his cronies.
It might not look that way. For starters, Batera probably reads more than W: The bookshelf in his Lawrenceville living room is jammed with texts on anarchism as well as welding, woodworking and plumbing. And despite Bush's globetrotting, Batera probably has a firmer grasp on daily life elsewhere in the world. His currently-on-hiatus punk band, Fear Is the Mindkiller, once hitchhiked its way through a tour of Mexico.

But Bush and Batera share at least one thing: an interest in alternative fuels. If, that is, the president's Jan. 31 State of the Union address can be taken seriously.

"America is addicted to oil," the president famously declared. "We must ... change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass."

Batera has been living the change George Bush talks about.

Just outside Batera's house is a former ambulance that Batera spent a "fairly intense weekend" converting to vegetable oil. The ambulance can still accept diesel fuel, as it was designed to, but Batera scavenges most of his fuel from waste cans and grease trays tossed away by restaurants. He siphons off the oil with a scoop, runs it through a filter, and drives off with a full tank.

"Sushi places are good; fast-food places are bad," Batera says. "The oil gets congealed from all the animal fat. There's a lot of oil you not only shouldn't put in your car; you shouldn't even eat." In unfamiliar towns, like those the band has traveled through on tour, "It can take a bunch of stops to find enough oil."

But once he finds it, he gets 12 miles to the gallon -- the same as he got running straight diesel.

We're not likely to see President Bush rummaging through waste barrels, sadly. But rising gas prices and political instability in the Middle East may be having an effect. Bush has publicly longed for the day when he could look "at the crop report and [say], 'Man, we've got a lot of soy beans; it means we're less dependent on foreign sources of energy.'"

Indeed, vegetable oil and other "biofuels" are becoming an increasingly viable -- and visible -- fuel source. In Pittsburgh and nationwide, companies and co-ops are finding new ways to derive power from plants. Traditionally, ethanol has garnered most of the attention, because it can run on conventional gas engines, and because it relies on corn grown in politically potent Red States. But some of the most promising technologies involve modifying diesel cars like Batera's, or by turning vegetable oil into "biodiesel," a fuel capable of running in a standard diesel engine.

The appeal of being able to grow -- or scavenge -- your own fuel is obvious. As one Internet enthusiast put it, vegetable oil "requires no deployment of troops to 'protect' vital oil interests in foreign lands. It isn't tainted by Big Oil lobbies and campaign contributions."

At least not yet.

Nathaniel Doyno, a co-founder of Steel City Biofuels, carries a slick-looking set of business cards, all printed with soy-based ink. That alone summarizes Doyno's approach: environmentally sensitive, but economically sophisticated.

Biodiesel, Doyno says, is "just like any other commodity, and it's controlled by the same people. One of the world's biggest distributors of biodiesel is a subsidiary of Gulf Oil." But since Doyno believes such backing is necessary for biodiesel to succeed, "I don't have a problem with that. I've got issues with the whole global capitalist system, but that's the game we're playing."

Driving on vegetable oil might have a 1960s earth-mother vibe. But as biofuels advocates like to point out, when Rudolf Diesel debuted his new engine design at the 1900 World's Fair, he used peanut oil for fuel. (He could do so because diesel engines compress air until it becomes superheated, so much so that even the energy in vegetable oil can be unleashed. In a gasoline engine, by contrast, a spark provides combustion at much lower pressures.) In later years, Diesel opined that vegetable oils "may become in the course of time as important as petroleum."

Emphasis on "in the course of time." After Diesel's death, engines based on his design were fueled with a byproduct of the gasoline-making process. The byproduct was cheap and plentiful, and until the past decade, vegetable oil largely fell out of mainstream use.

One catalyst for its resurgence was Joshua Tickell's 2000 book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank. While biofuels advocates consider the book a bit outré (its cover features a hippified sports car in a field of sunflowers), the book both reflected and inspired a growing interest in vegetable-based fuels.

You can pursue that interest in two different ways, Doyno says: "You can alter the car, or you can alter the fuel." Each approach requires a diesel engine, but either can be carried out in your garage.

The first option is preferred by free spirits like Batera. Running straight vegetable oil requires two things: extra filtering to remove impurities, and a means of pre-heating the fuel. (Vegetable oil gets sluggish and then "gels" in cold temperatures.) The main alterations involve installing a filter system and a heated dual-tank system. One tank contains traditional diesel fuel, for starting the car. The other tank contains vegetable oil; both it and the fuel lines connecting it to the engine must be heated to keep the oil flowing.

Do-it-yourself conversion kits usually cost between $800 and $1,000 and are available from such online sites as Colin Huwyler bought one as a teen-ager in Buffalo, N.Y.: "My next-door neighbor was a mechanic for GM," Huwyler says. "He guaranteed that he would help install it, but he wouldn't guarantee that it would work." The car worked well enough that Huwyler co-founded a company, Allentown-based Fossil Free Fuel, that designs and installs conversion kits of its own. A Fossil Free installation will usually cost between $1,600 and $2,000.

The other option - altering the fuel instead of your vehicle -- is biodiesel. As the National Biodiesel Board helpfully puts it, biodiesel "is made through a chemical process called transesterification whereby the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil." The process can be carried out at home by mixing vegetable oil, lye and methanol in a blender. (I won't describe the process in more detail because it's complicated -- and because I don't want to get sued by readers as chemistry-challenged as I am. Lye and methanol can be extremely dangerous, especially when used together.)

Increasingly, however, biodiesel is being made on an industrial scale, where the biodiesel is often blended with straight diesel.

"Most veggie-oil people, if they hear you say 'biodiesel,' they think 'sell-out,'" Doyno acknowledges. "Running straight vegetable oil is a kind of DIY thing." The car conversion is complicated -- "Necessity is the mother of figuring shit out," as Batera says -- and few drivers want to rummage for fuel. Of the more than 220 million motor vehicles on U.S. roads today, biofuels advocates estimate that fewer than 200,000 run on straight vegetable oil.

Since biodiesel can run in existing engines, it has the potential for much broader use. And exploring potential is what Doyno and his nonprofit outfit are all about. "Our tagline is education, demonstration, research and advocacy," he says.

In addition to conducting educational workshops, Steel City Biofuels produces biodiesel for other local nonprofits. Last November, Pittsburgh Voyager, which provides "floating classrooms" on area rivers, announced plans to build a $3 million boat that would run on biodiesel produced by Doyno's group. Doyno also hopes to lobby city governments and transit agencies to use biodiesel. "Politically, it's a no-miss," he says. Compared to regular diesel fuel, "It's clean, it's renewable, it's domestic. What are you going to say to that?"

Currently, Steel City Biofuels makes fuel in batches small enough for government regulators to consider it a "research" project. But Doyno plans to create a larger biodiesel facility at East End salvage dealer Construction Junction. "I'd like to produce one million gallons a year someday," Doyno says. The group also hopes to create a "biofuels hub," complete with fuel-production facilities, workshop space -- and a nearby garage for Huwyler to do vegetable-oil car conversions in Pittsburgh full time.

Pittsburgh has special incentive to pursue such projects. Primanti Brothers alone probably produces enough vegetable oil to power a small village, after all ... and environmentalists contend that pollution from regular diesel fuel poses serious local health risks. In a study released last month, the group PennEnvironment contended that Pittsburgh had the second-worst soot pollution in the country. Diesel engines -- mostly on buses, trucks, trains and river towboats -- are a prime source of soot, which can cause asthma and other respiratory ailments.

"I see biodiesel as one of a variety of strategies for reducing diesel emissions," says Rachel Filippini, executive director of Allegheny County's Group Against Smog and Pollution. Biodiesel produces less soot, among other environmental advantages. (Since biodiesel is organic, for example, a fuel spill needn't be a catastrophe.)

Filippini says she'd like to see biodiesel supplementing other innovations: namely, improved filters to capture diesel emissions. But biodiesel, she says, "is an exciting issue. I was listening to the David Lee Roth show just this morning," and the Van-Halen-front-man-turned-talk-radio host "had a guy talking on biodiesel. When David Lee Roth is talking about biodiesel, you know it's a hot issue."

As yet, however, there's only one place in Pittsburgh where customers can buy the fuel from the pump: Baum Boulevard Automotive in North Oakland.

"I attended an event at Carnegie Mellon about biodiesel, and they said they really needed someone locally to sell it," says station owner Chuck Wichrowski. "I first sold it in five-gallon pails, but that was a pain." Today, he stores the biodiesel in a 300-gallon tank and sells it through a conventional gas pump, but stocking it is still a challenge: The fuel is shipped all the way from Cincinnati.

Wichrowski estimates that he has just over a dozen regular biodiesel customers. Offering biodiesel "hasn't been economically beneficial, but it's something I'll continue to do," he says. "If I were to break even on it, I would be happy."

Other entrepreneurs are setting their sights higher.

"I hope that's not a urine sample," I tell Bob Banerjee as he walks into a conference room in Hazelwood's Technology Center, toting a glass jar filled with red-tinted fluid.

Banerjee, the chief salesman for Capital Technologies' approach to biodiesel, smiles. "I had a lot of Killian's Red last night," he says.

The jar, it turns out, is actually filled with palm oil -- which, along with soy and canola, are the chief sources for biodiesel. And Banerjee, it turns out, is actually savvier than his self-effacing style suggests.

For one thing, he wouldn't describe exactly how Capital Technologies makes its product unless I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Banerjee's company promises to help customers produce at least five million gallons of biodiesel a year... all with equipment that fits on two tractor-trailers. In contrast, he says, most other biodiesel makers use a "bubble, bubble, toil and trouble" approach. But since I didn't sign the agreement, Banerjee's descriptions of his company's process sounded like witchcraft too.

The process, he says, uses "modern hardware."

What kind of hardware? Microwaves? Lasers? Belt-sanders?

"Let's just say they're industrial machines." Eventually, we agree to call Capital's mysterious technology "the magic box."

Banerjee would say the company started with a process founder Richard C. Jackson devised for extracting oil from "tar sands." The process "cracks petroleum," Banerjee explains, using "low energy to separate the oil from the sand" with something "very close to a vibrational technology."

Jackson saw potential to use similar principles elsewhere -- like making biodiesel. He sought Carnegie Mellon University's help in refining the technology, and Capital Technologies was spun off from that collaboration. Today the firm has offices in Hazelwood's high-tech office park, with a production facility in the South Side.

Since Capital's process relies largely on mechanical rather than chemical means, it can make biodiesel from all kinds of sources: soy oil, animal fat, even the waste oil from vegetable fryers. Company labs are littered with bottles of store-bought Crisco, canola oil and a vial marked "Ken's Used Fryer Oil." ("You don't want to know where that came from," Banerjee warned.)

Banerjee's firm hopes to build a demonstration plant on Neville Island in conjunction with Valley Proteins -- a rendering company with access to all kinds of unmentionable oil-producing processes. Banerjee expects it to be up and running in the next six months, pending some final financing. (Though it's worth noting that last August, the Post-Gazette reported operations were "to begin in the first quarter of next year.")

But the interest is already there. Partly that's because of a federal regulation set to go into effect this year: Starting this fall, diesel engines must begin using low-sulfur fuel. Ordinarily, such fuel lacks the lubricating technologies of regular diesel ... but adding biodiesel to the mix can reduce engine wear.

The Missouri-based National Biodiesel Board hails this as just one more sign biodiesel is taking root. Its Web site,, boasts that John Kerry's campaign bus ran on biodiesel! So do many non-combat military vehicles, the rangers at Yellowstone National Park and many (earthbound) NASA vehicles! Willie Nelson tours in a biodiesel bus and sells his own "BioWillie" fuel! In fact, on Feb. 8, he opened a biodiesel station in California in the presence of a "longtime biodiesel advocate, actress Daryl Hannah"!

Still, biodiesel has made much deeper inroads in Europe and the rest of the world. (Europe is, in fact, one destination of the fuel to be produced in Neville Island.) "They use three times more diesel fuel than gas," Banerjee says. "Here, the ratio is reversed. So the oil companies look at us as a gnat." Still, that could change "if we can make biodiesel as affordable and show its environmental advantages."

In fact, the Neville Island facility is just one of a crop of Pennsylvania biofuels projects. Last fall, the nation's first fuel-injection facility, which mixes biodiesel with conventional fuel, went on-line outside of Harrisburg. A facility in Kutztown, Berks County, offers "Purofuel," a home heating oil whose content is 10-percent soy-based.

"Governor Ed Rendell has really led on biofuels and alternative energy," says John Hanger, president of environmental advocacy group PennFuture. "He's moved Pennsylvania dramatically towards alternative energy." Hanger, a former Democratic appointee to the state's Public Utility Commission, credits Rendell with a variety of initiatives -- from reducing the number of SUVs in the state vehicle fleet to luring investments in wind-produced electricity.

In the past three years, one program alone, the Energy Harvest Grant Program, has provided nearly $16 million in funding such programs. (Pittsburgh Voyager's biodiesel-powered boat is getting $100,000 of that, and CMU is receiving funding to design biodiesel-powered building heat as well.)

In that spirit, PennFuture's February 2006 policy agenda urges legislation "requiring 2 percent biodiesel content for most diesel fuel sold in Pennsylvania." "You've got to start somewhere," Hanger says. But "Eighty percent of Brazil's fuel comes from fuel made from sugar cane. And I mean, if Brazil can do it, it's merely a question of will and policy and sticking to it."

Kathleen McGinty, the state's Secretary of Environmental Protection, says progress toward that goal is well underway. "Based on the proposals we're seeing, the state could produce about 40 million gallons of soy-based biofuel by the end of the year," McGinty says. "There's only about 70 million gallons produced nationwide. A year from now, we could be producing more than half of the country's current capacity."

Usually, says McGinty, "As long as the lights come on, or the car engine turns over, nobody cares about long-term energy solutions. But then when the crisis happens, everybody wants to fix the problem tomorrow," and nobody wants to wait for long-term solutions. But in this case, McGinty says, the Republican-led legislature has embraced biodiesel too. Partly that's because it will help Pennsylvania farmers -- who tend to vote Republican and already harvest 400,000 acres of soy a year.

They're not the only ones hoping to cash in. "The magic box," Banerjee says, "is what will make us the next big thing in Pittsburgh."

How big? Banerjee says that already "some major oil companies came to us with multimillion-dollar offers -- just to go away. But [founder] Rick Jackson knew he had a potentially multibillion dollar business."

The lesson: Players may come and go in the energy business, but the stakes are always huge. Hippies and DIY-ers may think biodiesel offers an escape from the clutches of corporate conglomerates: It's possible, though, that the growth of biofuels will simply swap one conglomerate for another.

In fact, a chief selling point for Capital Technologies is that its facilities can process a variety of different oils -- including waste oil from restaurants. Otherwise, says Banerjee, agribusiness giants like Cargill and Monsanto would "have us over a barrel, so to speak."

In the 1800s, Pennsylvania's small-town oil wildcatters gave way to conglomerates like Standard Oil, and the days of homespun biofuels may be numbered too. Currently pioneers like Joy Batera can Dumpster-dive their fuel; most restaurants have to pay to remove their waste oil, and thus happily give it away for free. But that will change as companies like Banerjee's turn "waste" oil into an asset.

The industry's growth is "a blessing and a curse," says Fossil Free Fuel's Huwyler. "It's beneficial for people to re-evaluate where our fuel is coming from." But the more they do so, the more "networks will tighten up" for those currently getting the oil for free.

Indeed, already there are complaints about the machinations of palm-oil sheikhs. When one firm, Tampa-based EarthFirst Americas, recently announced plans to import 100 million gallons of palm oil, the American Soybean Association demanded "a tariff on imported biodiesel." In a Nov. 14 press release, the association said such protection would "enhance U.S. energy independence by encouraging production of domestic biodiesel from domestic feedstocks." Not surprisingly, the association represents American soy farmers -- and many of its members are on the National Biodiesel Board as well.

Homegrown biodiesel makers are feeling the squeeze too.

Pennsylvania, for example, is currently pondering regulations to prohibit the manufacture of more than 500 gallons of biodiesel a year without permits -- and to restrict production near homes, schools, and parks. Arguably, these requirements make sense: Lye and methanol are potentially dangerous chemicals, and Nathaniel Doyno says, "I wouldn't want my neighbor making this stuff without telling me." But in online forums like "BioDieselNow" ( biodiesel boosters complain of "invasive government regulation," and surmise the state measure "is intended to protect ... the large scale producers" from homegrown producers.

And as the biofuels industry expands, others caution, the implications could get worse.

"If biofuels take off, they will cause a global humanitarian disaster," British environmentalist George Monbiot warned in a November 2004 column in The Guardian. Should the demand for biodiesel grow large enough, he warns, "most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people."

Already, the Wall Street Journal has reported that prices are increasing for crops used in both food and biofuels, because of anticipated demand. And countries like Malaysia and Sumatra are tearing up forests to plant palm-oil trees for export. "The market responds to money, not need," Monbiot wrote.

Banerjee, of Pittsburgh's Capital Technologies, says the picture isn't that dire. Soy beans and palm oil aren't the only option, he says. "Algae has a huge amount of oil," he says. "This isn't algae in the ocean; it's algae that can be grown in ponds. The government of India has planted 100,000 hectares of land with a seed called jatropha. It's a hardy plant that can grow in [non-arable] parts of Africa."

Since food crops wouldn't grow in such climes anyway, Banerjee says, "You're letting people become part of the energy marketplace who weren't in it before."

Even so, meeting America's industrial-sized energy demand requires industrial agriculture. And modern farming itself relies heavily on fossil fuels (for fertilizer, among other things), genetically modified seeds, and other practices that environmentalists oppose.

It also remains to be seen whether biodiesel can ever make a sizable dent in the country's energy needs. Making 40 million gallons of biodiesel statewide each year sounds impressive ... until you consider that, according to federal Department of Energy statistics, the U.S. consumes 840 million gallons of oil each day.

A noted biofuels skeptic, professor Tad Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley, argues that U.S. energy consumption outpaces the energy value of every crop grown in America combined. "Biodiesel fuel from soybeans has a negligible chance of satisfying a discernible part of our fuel consumption," he argued in an August 2005 speech before the National Press Club. By contrast, increasing the average mileage of U.S. passenger vehicles by 3-5 miles per gallon "would dwarf the effects of all possible biofuel production from all sources."

Advocates of biofuels note that theirs is not an either/or solution. As McGinty says, "If soy-based fuels were all we did, we'd probably end up farming land that was highly erosive. Everything has its place, and everything has important limitations. The only danger is thinking there's a silver bullet, because that's what made us so dependent on fossil fuels in the first place."

Biodiesel is only a "transitional" solution, Doyno agrees, "because of the land part of the equation -- the sustainability of the agriculture and the land you need to grow it.

"The issue with a new fuel is developing the infrastructure" -- the network of refueling stations that drivers with, say, hydrogen-powered cars would need. But biodiesel can be used inside existing fuel tanks, and blended with existing fuel. "That's why biodiesel is the transition. The infrastructure is already there," Doyno says. After that, "My feeling is that in 10 or 15 years, hydrogen will be here."

Then again, even hydrogen may not be the ultimate solution. It takes a lot of energy to get hydrogen, and so far, that energy has come from the same old sources -- including fossil fuels.

In the end, maybe the problem isn't just the kind of energy we use ... but the scale at which we use it.

"People always want a quick answer in America," Joy Batera told me shortly before I left his Lawrenceville home. And as I climbed into my car -- the needle nudging below "E" and the "check engine light" still on -- I figured he was probably right.

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