Anderson Creates Biodiesel to Beat the Price at the Pump
Albion College student Shawn Anderson is happily cruising the roads in his Volkswagen while many of us grumble about gas prices that continue to average more than $2.80 per gallon.
That's because the junior whose parents reside on farmland in Parma Township creates biodiesel fuel for his automobile and the farm equipment out of the vegetable oil that some restaurants in Albion leave out for disposal. Anderson estimates that the gas he's making costs about $1-$1.10 per gallon when you factor in the cost of road taxes, and the money he saves comes in handy when making trips for his piano tuning business or visiting friends.
"I couldn't add (the savings) up. Hundreds, thousands probably," Anderson, a political science major who is working on concentrations in environmental studies and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for public Policy and Service and a minor in anthropology and sociology, said. "When diesel was up to $5 a gallon I was cruising all over the state.
"I'm getting about 45 miles a gallon in the summer and in the winter I get about 35-40," he added. "I only fill up once a month and I'm often forced to drive (when I'm going out with friends)."
Anderson said his fuel mileage is the product of an efficient vehicle and his effort to be conscious of his driving. He takes the car out of gear when traveling downhill and avoids sudden accelerations which would cause a rise in RPM that burns more fuel.
That's not to say that Anderson has completely weaned his vehicle off fossil fuel. Biodiesel solidifies in cold temperatures and can gel in the fuel line. He runs a blend of at least 80 percent biodiesel and 20 percent regular diesel when it gets chilly, and the ratio can go up to 50-50 depending on the weather.
The process of creating the fuel begins when Chris Anderson, Shawn's dad who works as a carpenter at the college, collects the oil from the restaurants and disposes of the containers. Shawn, who built the most of the equipment to make biodiesel himself, estimates it takes 6-8 hours to make a 40-gallon batch of biodiesel.
"I bought my processor for $700," Anderson, who says he learned most of the process of creating biodiesel through reading and trial and error, said. "I probably have $1,500 into it all together. You can spend $10,000 if you are buying a unit. We have two 270-gallon tanks that we store fuel in at our house. If you had to buy all that stuff it would add up."
While Anderson reports his fuel runs 75-80 percent cleaner than fossil fuel, he can receive amusing remarks from others when he's on the road.
"When I drive my car it smells like whatever was cooked in the oil," Anderson said. "I've been sitting at the drive thru and the clerk will say something like, ‘Somebody is starting to barbeque early' and I have to tell them it's my car. I don't know if it's a downfall. Sometimes it smells really good."
Even after the biodiesel is made, the process of recycling the restaurant oil into new products continues as sodium hydroxide and water can be added to the glycerin by product from the biodiesel to make a soap that is effective in cutting through grease.
"You boil out the methanol and get about seven gallons (of soap) overall per batch and a gallon makes about 20 bars of soap," Anderson said.
"The soap doesn't look the best," Anderson said. "It has a brown color and the bars I have now are not flat, but they are definitely worth it. I've been thinking about making soap in larger amounts to start selling it. I could make more on soap than biodiesel because if I could sell it for $3-4 per bar I'd be looking at $200 per batch."
From a public policy perspective, Anderson sees biodiesel as a step, but not the solution for the United States' dependence of importing fossil fuel.
"The problem is with as much oil as we use we couldn't sustainably make as much biodiesel (to meet the need)," Anderson said. "They are working with algae-based biodiesel and that's more feasible. You can have algae farms on open land in the southwest that's not good a whole lot else. Algae produces oil to help it float on top of water and you can extract that oil."