Kitchen Biodiesel December 15, 2006Posted by Andreas in Environment, Sustainable Living.
I made a batch of biodiesel a few months ago. In my kitchen, using some of our old chip oil. (Just in case you’ve been off-planet or otherwise absent for the last decade, biodiesel is made from new or used vegetable oil and can be used in any diesel vehicle without modification.)
The boys (being boys) were extremely excited by the whole idea. Anything that could possibly be construed to be an “experiment” a la Dexter’s Laboratory always get’s their enthusiastic approval (Ben still thinks “Daddy is a scientist and knows everything” – he told his teacher. Poor kid. I give it a few more years before that pedestal crumbles under my feet. Not sure who’ll take it harder, him or me…) .
The process is quite simple (there are plenty of recipes, discussion groups and general info on the web) , everything worked pretty well and by the end of it I had magically turned some old chip oil into golden biodiesel… all in a two litre cool-drink bottle nogal – modern day alchemy!
The idea was to move on from this initial test batch to building a biodiesel processor. All you need is a geyser, a pump, some plumbing and a couple of drums.
More and more people (especially in the US) are using these home-made contraptions to brew their own biodiesel. The attraction is obvious: with some chemicals and cheap or even free oil from your local fish ‘n chip joint you’ve got your own filling station in you backyard.
Unfortunately I never got any further than my initial test batch. For one, I don’t have a diesel car. I’m also not particularly clever when it comes to handy-work, plumbing and that sort of stuff, so building the processor turned out to be too intimidating. I’d still be very interested in home-brewing biodiesel, if I could find some like-minded folks around Cape Town who were into doing this as a collective.
Using biodiesel made from used vegetable oil which would otherwise be dumped is most definitely a viable alternative to petrol or petrodiesel, but there is nowhere near enough used veg oil around to make even a small dent in the huge amount of petroleum we consume as a civilisation.
Large-scale manufacturing of biodiesel (and other biofuels, such as ethanol) from crops especially grown for the purpose, on the other hand, is quite controversial even amongst environmentalists, as critics like George Monbiot and David Pimentel point out. To quote Monbiot, “This idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy…is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back.”
There are a number of proposals for big-time biofuel production in South Africa and I hope the debate around these issues will become more animated here soon.
So how do we start “cutting back” then? Personally, I have to take my car to work on most days, since I have to do the school lifts and must be available at short notice in case there are any emergencies with my kids.
Brewing my own biodiesel is still an option that I would like to pursue in the future. The other possibility is converting an old diesel car to make it run on straight used vegetable oil (there used to be an outfit here in Cape Town that sold and installed kits for this. Not sure if they’re still around).
I looked into getting a rechargeable electric bicycle, but they’re not readily available in SA yet.
At the moment, I’m thinking that a combination of my car (hopefully replaced by a biodiesel or straight vegetable oil car using old oil at some stage) and my conventional mountain-bike are the most realistic options for reducing my personal transportation-related environmental impact.