When gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon in 2008, Timothy Davis was in a good mood driving his big red Dodge pickup 30 miles round trip to work every day.
Two years before, Davis had begun making his own biodiesel — a fuel distilled from used cooking oil — for less than a dollar a gallon to power both his truck and his wife’s sport utility vehicle.
So hearing the nonstop complaints from other drivers made him smile.
“I was just laughing when I was driving to work,” he said. “No, I do feel sorry for them. But everybody wanted to carpool with me.”
Distilling his own fuel from used cooking oil has made filling up his truck a series of deliberate acts that take several hours a week for Davis, an information technology specialist from Livingston Parish. He must collect used cooking oil at restaurants, then spend several hours a week processing the oil into fuel.
“It’s a very simple process,” he said. “It takes your time, and you have to do the parts properly to run it in your vehicle.”
Davis knows from experience how to make biodiesel, but even after six years of perfecting his conversion method, Davis attended a workshop with the LSU AgCenter in November to see if he could pick up any tips on the process. The center has offered the classes a few times a year since the summer of 2008, when gasoline and diesel prices shot up, said Bill Carney, director of the Callegari Center where the workshop occurred.
“Gas went to $4, and everybody freaked out,” Carney said.
In late 2007, Carney and a few employees of the center started learning to make biodiesel after several Louisiana residents started inquiring for advice on the process.
“When we saw all the big hype, we decided we better start doing training,” he said. “We had people coming out of the woodwork.”
Running a backyard biodiesel operation is not without danger. To convert the used oil into fuel, methanol and lye are mixed with it. “John Q. Public” does not have the resources to build the equipment and properly make the fuel, Carney said. Lye can damage the skin and eyes, while methanol is highly flammable.
“In the beginning the reason for doing it was to scare people,” Carney said. “I had little old ladies wanting to do it.”
Still, after frightening a few dozen people, the workshops remain popular. The center puts on a few each year, and Carney said usually two to three people of the 15 who enroll in each course actually take the steps to make their own fuel.
Students at the November workshop were a cross-section of south Louisiana — both men and women, hobby farmers, petroleum industry hands, high school students and office workers.
Temberlee Mallet, a senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, said she wants to create a small biodiesel converter for her senior project.
“I’m very interested in what I can do to limit my carbon footprint,” said Mallet, who is president of her school’s environmental science club. “If I can do it as a high school student, then certainly someone with more funds can do it.”
Davis became interested in distilling his own biodiesel in 2004 when he saw a video on the process.
The cost savings and environmental implications interested him.
“I was like, it can’t be that easy,” he said.
Over the next two years Davis investigated the process, then tried it out. He traded in his gasoline-powered Dodge truck for a Dodge 2500 Cummins diesel and began producing fuel for it.
Later he and his wife bought a diesel Jeep Liberty for his wife to drive, and their family stopped visiting the gas station.
He gets his used cooking oil from a cafeteria and a few restaurants in downtown Baton Rouge, stopping by on a regular basis. To retrieve it, he built his own pump using an old propane tank.
“They were having to pay to have people collect the oil,” he said. “It was a win-win for both of us.”
Getting into biodiesel production takes $1,000 to $1,500 in materials and good mechanical abilities, Davis said. Nothing gets wasted, Davis said, plus the process produces glycerin as a byproduct, which he uses to make “a pretty good soap.” After some convincing, his wife even started using the soap to wash clothes.
James Redwine, of Henderson, in east Texas, enrolled in the workshop while visiting his daughter in Calcasieu Parish. Running a small farm after retiring as a process operator at an oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Redwine was interested in making fuel for his farm vehicles and machinery.
“There are some elements of danger using the methanol,” he said. “But using good safety measures and practices” should lessen that.
For Redwine the impetus to make his own fuel is both economic and ecological.
“As a people we have done a lot of things we shouldn’t have done,” he said, “and we’re going to pay for it eventually.”
He said he planned to start researching his own conversion process once he got back to east Texas.
“I think it is entirely feasible for the average guy to do it,” he said. “The biggest challenge is putting it together.”
For more information on biodiesel conversion classes through the LSU AgCenter, contact staff at the Callegari Center at (225) 578-6998 or visit http://www.lsuagcenter.com/callegari.
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