Brewing Biodiesel

People who make their own biofuels could help jump start the alternative fuel industry.

By Robbie Harris

Huge vats of cooking oil—some still containing floating, crispy food remnants—are a staple at virtually all restaurants. While these buckets of artery-clogging grease may not seem physically or aesthetically desirable, they are attracting a growing fan club.

Most establishments pay someone to haul away their used cooking oil every week. But increasingly, individuals and members of small coops around the country are picking up that dump-destined oil for free. Using old fry grease from restaurants, people are making engine fuel for their diesel cars for a mere 70 cents a gallon.

“My guess is there’s got to be 10,000 people out there doing this, and if they’re all making 1,000 gallons a year, that makes this a 10-million-gallon-a-year industry,” says Richard Reilly, a 38-year-old former corporate finance executive who started his own biofuel coop in 2003.

While 10 million gallons may be just a drop in the nation’s gas tank, some argue that used fry oil is quickly turning into a new biodiesel market.

Reilly drives a Jetta TDI diesel wagon around Newtown, Connecticut. He says the vehicle needed no modifications to run on brewed fuel, and doesn’t require any additional oil filter changes. He bought the car the day after he made his first batch of fuel in 2002. “The first time I made diesel, I shook up a test batch to see if I could make it or if it was another Internet hoax,” he says. “When I saw the glycerin settle out at the bottom, I jumped up and screamed. Come hell or high water, if terrorists blow up everything, at least I can make my own fuel.”

Soon after that “aha” moment, Reilly started a biofuel coop with a few other guys. Though the arrangement fell apart because of people’s busy schedules, Reilly now makes his own supply at home and sells an array of home biofuel processors online. His top-of-the-line model goes for $7,000, and can produce fuel in just two days. The model even has a pump for the car’s gas tank. For his own purposes, Reilly uses his $199 model, which basically uses a conventional water heater to brew the fuel. While it doesn’t create the purest product, he can use it to fuel his home heating system as well as his car.

Reilly’s products have drawn attention from both penny-pinchers and environmentalists alike. “My stereotypical customer is a handy guy who is sick of giving money to Exxon or giving money to anybody for fuel when he can make it himself,” he says.

Halfway across the country, a similar coop model worked out for another group of like-minded folks. Near Tiffan, Iowa, about a dozen people have kept the Yoderville Biofuel Coop going since 2004. Once a week, the group gets together at Steve Fugate’s place for a brewing party. They pop a few brews themselves, and then concoct biofuel from used cooking oil with a machine Fugate designed and sells. He describes the coop members as “a little bit of everything. There’s a professor, hippy types, and doctors.” About half of them spend at least 15 hours a week brewing biofuel.

Fugate is a former restaurant manager whose employer used to pay $50 a week to have the spent fry grease hauled away (a fraction of what some restaurants pay). In addition to founding the coop, Fugate also opened Green World Biofuels (formerly called Flying F Biofuels), which sells fuel processors and provides information for people who want to start their own coops.

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Where can I get basic info on how to make my own batch? Thanks


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