Bio-diesel, windpower in the works for two north beachers

  • Apr. 22, 2005 5:00 p.m.

By Mariah McCooey–A couple of North Beach residents are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to environmental sustainability. Meredith Adams and Lars Erickson are both living off the power grid in the small beachside community near the Whale Bone museum, and they are experimenting with bio-diesel fuel.
You could be forgiven for mistaking their operation for the lab of a mad scientist. A shed full of jerry cans, kegs, and buckets as well as several unrecognizable contraptions is where they are cooking up bio-diesel, which will be used to power their diesel-engine vehicles.
Bio-diesel, interchangeable with regular diesel, is extracted from vegetable oil – in this case, waste vegetable oil from the deep fryers of local restaurants. Ms Adams said that they have been stockpiling used oil for months, from John’s Café and Howlers in Queen Charlotte. The oil used to cook your calamari, formerly destined for the dump, could now potentially be used to fuel vehicles.
“The guy who invented the diesel engine intended for it to be a multi-fuel engine,” said Mr. Erickson. “Everyone’s talking about hydrogen cars, electric carsÂ… but it’s so abstract, way in the future. This exists right now, and people can do it.”
A 20-percent bio-diesel mix, or “B-20”, is available at the pumps already in many places, including Australia and parts of Europe, where diesel vehicles are more common.
The exhaust from a vehicle burning vegetable oil is infinitely cleaner than the stuff that’s usually spewing out of your car. (“It smells like burning French fries,” said Mr. Erickson). There’s no sulfur dioxide, less soot, and it also creates what’s called a ‘neutral carbon cycle,’ explained Ms Adams. The carbon in petroleum, drawn up from deep in the earth and then released into the atmosphere is what’s causing an imbalance, leading to the greenhouse effect. On the other hand, growing plants naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and when burned, they give off the same amount of carbon that they consumed – hence, “neutral.”
“I had a Pathfinder,” said Ms Adams, “but I was dissatisfied that me buying gas was contributing to so many problems, worldwide.” Using bio-diesel kills – er, saves? – four birds with one stone. Not only are the two recycling a waste product, keeping sludge out of the landfill, and polluting less – if it all goes as planned, they’ll be saving a bundle on fuel costs. They have to buy a few things to make it work, but with everything factored in, the net cost is about 27 cents a litre.
The oil, they get for free – it’s considered garbage, after all. To turn it into bio-diesel, you have to separate the ester from the glycerin molecules, explained Ms Adams. First, it gets filtered to remove any chunks, and then it’s heated up (by wood power, of course) to boil any water off, and then cooled to a specific temperature. Next, they add a methanol/lye mixture. Then the concoction gets agitated for half an hour (using a souped-up paint shaker) followed by a settling period. Then, the purer liquid is siphoned off the top, and washed with water to remove the soapy residue. The by-product? A pretty nice glycerin soap.
“I used it to wash my hair the other day,” said Ms Adams, “it worked pretty well.” The whole thing is pretty responsible, she said. You can put it in your compost – it’s completely biodegradable.
But this production is just the beginning. Bio-diesel doesn’t require any mechanical modifications. But with a few adjustments and additions, a diesel engine can run on pure oil, which is their next goal. But the possibilities are endless.
“There’s a fish plant in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, that is powered by fish oil rendered from offal,” said Ms Adams. Another potential fuel source is algae – which is up to fifty percent oil.
In a related project, they are also building a windmill on the appropriately windswept North Beach dunes. A huge pole has been erected, with guy wires holding it in place. Soon, the colourful fish windsock at the top will be replaced by a whirling windmill, which will charge a battery bank at the base.
“Something’s got to give,” said Ms Adams, “the way things are now is just not sustainable – it’s high time.”