Careers and Ed: Bio the people, fuel the people

Tank yourself: Local biodiesel advocates guide newbies through the brewing process

Cars suck. I have stickers that say so and a venerable beater of a bicycle that underscores the point. But for every one of the approximately 40,000 bicycle commuters in San Francisco, there are more than 10 registered car owners, and just wishing they didn't exist won't make it so. But I'm no hater. I'm sure glad my plumber drives a van, for instance, and my gardener roommate wouldn't get very far without a pickup truck to haul all that gravel and mulch. Still, the environmental, economic, and just plain moral implications of using anything that relies on petroleum for fuel have become increasingly difficult to justify — especially since interest in and access to alternative fuels are on the uptick. Last year's mayoral biodiesel directive, when implemented, will make San Francisco the national leader in biodiesel use for municipal vehicles. In fact, the demand for biodiesel in the Bay Area could soon outstrip the current supply, and as far as getting in on the ground floor goes, the time has never been better to be involved with biofuels.

Of course, a lot of people get into biodiesel not as a career move but as a form of activist self-sufficiency that hearkens back to the '70s return-to-the-land movement. The notion that one can power a vehicle on homemade fuel made from recycled cooking oil and a few bucks worth of drain cleaner is nigh-irresistible to penny-pinchers and political progressives alike, and the accessibility of the technology is such that even the least mechanically minded can pick it up with minimum instruction. Some instruction could be beneficial, though. Considering that two of the three major ingredients of biodiesel are highly toxic and flammable (methanol and lye), it may well behoove nascent home brewers to hone their skills in a structured environment, which local biofuel advocates are conveniently providing.


Jennifer Radtke knows her biofuels. Despite an incongruous educational background in Slavic languages and poli-sci, she has become one of the Bay Area's premiere authorities on brewing biodiesel and running a biodiesel station, and she has offered courses and internships in both since 2003. As one of the cofounders of the women-owned Berkeley cooperative BioFuel Oasis (which serves as a station for more than 1,600 regular customers) and an instructor for the Real Goods Solar Living Institute and the Berkeley Biodiesel Collective, Radtke is committed to the biodiesel community. She teaches five different classes covering almost every aspect of the biofuel biz for beginners and advanced users alike. Though many of her classes are held in Berkeley, you can occasionally find her holding forth in Golden Gate Park's SF County Fair Building.

For tyros to the technology, Radtke teaches a one-day introductory class covering biodiesel usage, sustainability, and home brewing. At a typical class, she opens with a presentation on biodiesel basics, listing the benefits and drawbacks of using biodiesel. Even to a nondriver like myself, the benefits appear to outweigh the disadvantages by a hefty margin.

Lower emissions and a higher rate of biodegradability are things I take for granted when thinking about biodiesel, but I certainly didn't realize it's less toxic to the human body than table salt when ingested and less irritating to the skin than a 4 percent soap-and-water solution. Biodiesel's flashpoint (the temperature at which it ignites when exposed to flames) is over 300 degrees Fahrenheit — the flashpoint of petroleum-based diesel is about 125 degrees. Most interesting to me and my low-to-no-maintenance requirements is finding out biodiesel is a natural solvent that cleans out the fuel tank and filters.

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