The Old College Fry: Waste Vegetable Oil as Fuel of the Future

 While we are trying to keep trans fat out of our foods, the waste oil from cooking is finding its

 While we are trying to keep trans fat out of our foods, the waste oil from cooking is finding its way to our fuel tanks.

Brooklyn freelance writer Hugh Ryan wrote us recently to say:

“On March 5th the Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO) kicked off a collaboration with New York City’s Automotive High School to convert a school bus to run on vegetable waste oil and to provide assistance to a fledgling school band.”

A political street marching band based in Brooklyn, the R.M.O. will hit the road this summer to take their in-your-face musical inspiration on a two-week tour around the country, ending at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

The R.M.O.’s three-part training for the Auto High School marching band began Wednesday. Together, the two bands will perform at a benefit for the school on Earth Day (April 19). (Click here for more info.)

I grew up in Brooklyn (James Madison High School class of 1970) and I can tell you that a partnership between future auto mechanics, teachers and radicals—all in service of the environment—could only happen in my home borough.

Meanwhile, here in Manhattan, at Columbia, Matt Basinger and Nick Morris are working on a project that looks at vegetable oil as a sustainable, rural energy solution. They’ve developed a basic inexpensive modification kit for a diesel engine that allows it to run on raw vegetable oils, “allowing remote villages to power their engines more reliably with locally grown products instead of fossil fuels.” Along with Engineering Professor Dr. Vijay Modi, Basinger is also working on projects sponsored by Columbia Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project that explore ways of generating electricity in small developing villages that cannot access the national power grid. According to Basinger’s proposal, “preliminary results show only a slight reduction of power output due to the lower power density of vegetable oil when compared to diesel fuel.” (For more information, click here.)

More than 1,700 gallons of cooking oil are used annually by dining and catering services on Columbia’s Morningside campus. Under a partnership with The Doe Fund, a New York nonprofit that provides housing and employment opportunities to formerly homeless individuals, Columbia’s waste cooking oil is now picked up and delivered to refineries where it awaits conversion into biodiesel.

According to Joshua Tickell, author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, 3 billion gallons of waste vegetable oil are generated in the U.S. each year, enough to fuel around 5 percent of all diesel vehicles in the country. Defined as an alternative diesel fuel derived from vegetable oils, animal fats or used oils, most biodiesel in the U.S. comprises soybean or recycled cooking oil. It’s competitive with conventional, petroleum-derived diesel fuel, but faces technical issues that prevent widespread use. To ensure higher usage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) is working on a project to improve the performance of alternative fuels and products derived from vegetable oils. (For more information, click here.

When biodiesel enthusiasts refer to vegetable oil that can be used as fuel, they’re typically talking about waste vegetable oil (WVO) that gets discarded from restaurants. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not consider cooking oil (or restaurant grease) biodiesel: “To make biodiesel, the base oil is put through a process called ‘esterification.’ This uses a certain type of industrial alcohol (ethanol or methanol) to remove the glycerin from the cooking oil, making it thinner, lighter, and cleaner burning. Cooking oil or recycled greases from restaurants have not been processed into esters are not biodiesel, and are not registered by the E.P.A. for legal use in vehicles.”

In an article titled “The Biofuel Myths,” Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, writes, “Biofuels suggests renewable abundance: clean, green, sustainable assurance about technology and progress. This pure image allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the International Panel on Climate Change to present fuels made from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as the next step in a smooth transition from peak oil to a yet-to-be-defined renewable fuel economy. But the production of biofuels consumes more energy, water and natural resources such as land and could lead to a rise in world food prices.”

In addition to the refining issue that E.P.A. focuses on, the other key environmental issue with biofuels is the source of the oil. If we are using materials that could be used for food to make fuel—it will drive up the price of food. If we use waste materials, it would reduce the cost of waste disposal and have no impact on food production or price. Given the fact that we will require a lot of different sources of energy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, biofuels, like wind, can play a small but important role.

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