After 16 years of selling thousands of gallons of gasoline a day, Chuck Wichrowski now sells soybeans five gallons at a time -- as biodiesel fuel. Wichrowski, 55, of Greensburg, recently left the gas station business to run Baum Boulevard Automotive in North Oakland -- perhaps the only biodiesel dealer locally.
Straight-to-the-tank biodiesel is nothing new. Rudolf Diesel developed his first engine to run on peanut oil in 1895. Modern biodiesel -- domestic, renewable, carbon-neutral, biodegradable and used without adaptations on a regular diesel engine -- can reduce diesel's pollutants.
(Don't try pouring Wesson into your tank; unless you remove glycerin from the oil, you'll need a specialized fuel system.)
"The customers I have are mainly concerned with saving the planet," says Wichroski. But he believes more general interest is growing beyond the eight or 10 customers he has today. New federal mandates for sulfur pollution reduction may boost biodiesel use, and soon there may be a cost incentive too. Most 100 percent biodiesel sells for $3.45, $1.50 more per gallon than petroleum diesel. But on Jan. 1, biodiesel producers will get a small tax break.
"I'm 75 and I've been in business my whole life," says Wichrowski's supplier, Dick Morchesky of Export Energy in Export, Pa. "Once in a while there's a snake-oil salesman who will try to sell you on a new carburetor or an additive that will upset the whole industry. This is not any snake oil. It does work, and will work. It's an attempt by the country to try to lessen dependence on foreign oil sources."
As one biodiesel Web site proclaims: "No one died defending a soybean field."
Other agricultural products such as rapeseed, mustard seed and algae can be used to make biodiesel too. Even some of the 3 billion gallons of waste vegetable oil generated by McDonald's, Wendy's and other fryers annually is harvested to make biodiesel.
José Ernesto Mieres, 36, of Squirrel Hill, has been using biodiesel for three years and has seen its availability slowly increase. He first bought biodiesel via mail order, then had to travel to southeastern Ohio. He was Export Energy's first customer. Mieres recently bought recycled vegetable oil from Duff BioDiesel in central Pennsylvania. Chemist Keith Duff sells about 120 gallons a week at $2.05 per gallon and is looking to increase production capabilities to a half-million gallons by March.
A major obstacle to biodiesel use, Mieres notes, is the scarcity of diesel cars, currently limited to a few Volkswagen and Mercedes models.
"But everything else -- construction vehicles, trains, big rigs, farm equipment, power generators and ships -- run on diesel," he says. "Your mind flies. We'll no longer have to be slaves to the petroleum industry."