Careers and Ed: Bio the people, fuel the people - Page 2

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

(Can I get it to do my dishes too?) With bennies like these, who can fault biodiesel for its unfortunate tendency to burst through rubber fuel lines (discontinued since 1994) or eat through your slick new paint job? Such inconveniences seem minor in comparison to those created by toxic, flammable petroleum-based fuels.

After a comparison discussion of biodiesel to petroleum diesel and SVO (straight veggie oil), Radtke demonstrates home brewing and discusses the chemistry involved. After a lunch break, the students brew their own one-to-two-liter batch. Starting out with a quantity of recycled cooking oil, the class tests for water and free fatty acids, a process known as titration. (When water is present in the oil, the home brewer runs the risk of making soap instead of fuel.) Titration determines whether the used oil is too rancid or has been broken down too much by high fryer heat. If the oil is deemed usable, students concoct a test brew, mixing the heated oil with methanol (wood alcohol) and sodium hydroxide (lye). Here especially is where the presence of an instructor comes in handy.

Unlike the finished product, the chemical components of biodiesel have a very low flashpoint, and their toxicity is much higher. Methanol in particular can be harmful, even deadly, if improperly handled, and for this reason alone, many biodiesel advocates are still skittish about taking the last step toward home production. After walking beginners through a safe mixing procedure, Radtke discusses washing and filtering the biofuel and assessing its quality. She also discusses how to dispose of byproducts and offers additional educational resources. For people who want to practice brewing bigger batches (20 to 40 gallons) and a get a more in-depth overview of the small production industry, a three-day advanced course is occasionally offered, often on an on-demand basis.


It doesn't take long for the would-be home brewer to want to start tinkering with processors. For the mechanically unsavvy, Radtke offers an equipment-building workshop for five participants at a time (often in conjunction with co-instructor Alan Pryor of the Berkeley and Alameda Biodiesel co-ops or alternatively through Real Goods). Hoarding industry secrets doesn't seem to be an issue for biofuel distributors teaching people how to make their product. In fact, a common denominator among backyard biodiesel advocates seems to be their genuine desire to spread the knowledge of their chosen vocation far and wide. Plus, as Radtke points out, most of her processor-builder students actually come from outside the Bay Area, some from as far away as Southern California, where stations like BioFuel Oasis and the SF Biofuel Cooperative have yet to materialize.

This is a paradox that Radtke and Melissa Hardy, also of BioFuel Oasis, hope to address in their upcoming five-day intensive class, How to Start Your Own Biodiesel Station (Feb. 18–23), walking students through the process, from procuring fuel and testing it to applying for the required permits and necessary funding. Other topics of interest to the budding entrepreneur include zoning and taxation laws, equipment building and maintenance, and even market development. By the end of the course, participants should have a clear vision and a working business plan to get them started in the distribution biz.

In addition to that course, BioFuel Oasis holds monthly fuel filter–changing workshops on-site (next scheduled for Jan. 21). Since biofuel has such a solvent effect, cars that have just recently switched over from regular diesel run the risk of clogging from the leftover residue dredged out by the introduced biofuel. For a $10 to $20 sliding scale fee and about 30 minutes of time, attendees learn to replace their filters, a much preferable option to waiting until they clog on the freeway.

Also from this author

  • Bee true

    The documentaries of Berlin and Beyond

  • Divining the entrails

    New Last Gasp releases explore the unsettling art of Laurie Lipton and Elizabeth McGrath

  • The Performant: Epochalypse Now