Homebrew Fuel: Brewing Up a Revolution
Louisa Aronow
August 29, 2004

Bio-brewer "girl mark" eyes glycerin on the bottom of a bad batch of bio-fuel. Credit: Louisa Aranow
In a nondescript warehouse in Ukiah on a toasty Sunday afternoon, the homebrew class was attentive. Students clustered around two laboratory tables: old plywood on empty 55-gallon drums. They carefully observed and encouraged classmates who dropped a liquid from a foot-long calibrated pipette into a beaker. On a nearby gas burner, a smoking liquid bubbled.

The instructor, a tattooed, tri-color haired woman in combat boots, instructed a participant to put a long sleeved robe and goggles before measuring the reactant outside, with plenty of ventilation.

This was not a workshop on making moonshine, or other illegal substances. Participants had come from as far as San Diego to the headquarters of Yokayo Biofuels to learn how to make "home-brew" veggie oil fuel for diesel vehicles. The instructors were Kumar Plocher, a founder of Yokayo Biofuels, and Maria “girl mark" Alovert, one of the foremost experts on homebrew biodiesel. Mark has been leading workshops for four years, and just self-published the third edition of her book, Biodiesel Homebrewers Guide.

The good news is, biodiesel can be made from a variety of oils. Peanut oil was the fuel for Rudolf Diesel's demonstration engine at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. He created the diesel engine to run on any hydrocarbon and hoped his invention would help the development of agriculture. Today most of vegetable oil fuel in the US is made from soy oil, to the delight of soy farmers. In Europe rapeseed (canola) is the most common feedstock for bio-fuel. But diesel vehicles can also run on lard, coconut oil, palm oil, and gleanings from McDonald's.

Unlike the petroleum competition, biofuels are not about to run out anytime soon. And another importance difference is that these renewable fuels are kinder to the biosphere. If there is an oil spill from biodiesel tanks, for example, the result is not an environmental tragedy -- biodiesel is 85% biodegradable in water within 28 days.

The fuel does not require extraction from environmentally sensitive areas, like the Arctic Wilderness or the rain forest of Peru. Also US Dept. of Energy studies show that compared to diesel fuel, biodiesel produces 78% less greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide), 55% less particulates, and 100% less sulfur (the main component of acid rain).

Biodiesel does produce about 5% more nitrous oxides than diesel, but much of that can be mitigated with a catalytic converter or by changing the ignition timing. The veggie fuel does not require billions of dollars of military intervention to protect its source -- although we know the war in Iraq is about democracy, not petroleum.

Maria "girl mark" Alovert gazes approvingly at a sample batch of class-act biofuel. Credit: Louisa Aranow
Safety First, No Lye
First the instructor discussed safety. Although the final product is not a hazardous material, the catalysts used to make biodiesl are poisons that must be handled with caution. Methanol (methyl alcohol) is a liquid but can form a poisonous gas which travels invisibly across the floor because it's heavier than air. Lye (sodium hydroxide) is used in a minuscule proportion to the vegetable oil, but will cause severe burns if it comes in contact with skin. Thus all workshop participants were outfitted in chemical-proof gloves, coveralls, and safety glasses before the alchemy began. Homebrewing must always take place in a well-ventilated area free of children and animals.

The future homebrewers learned to make a one-liter sample batches with a variety of oils before plunging into biodiesel by the gallon. First they checked the oil for water content and warmed the oil if necessary to remove water. Then a titration test revealed how much catalyst was necessary. When the precise amounts of lye and methanol are mixed together to make sodium methoxide they form a lethal, warm concoction that must be handled carefully.

The sodium methoxide is usually added to warm oil in a processor, where it mixes gently for up to an hour. In the one liter sample batches, the processor was simply a plastic jug, tightly capped, and gracefully shaken by a brave homebrewer for about ten minutes. Most homebrewers make processors from a paint mixer adapted to stir deep into a 55-gallon drum with a splash-proof lid, but a few companies are now selling "touch-proof" processors and equipment that make haomebrewing safer and easier.

The Birth of Golden Biofuel
Then it was time for the mixture to rest and cool. Workshop participants were thrilled to see fuel being formed before their eyes. In the plastic bottle, it only took minutes for the golden biodiesel to begin separating into a top layer while the thick, brown glycerin settled at the bottom. Homebrewers usually let the mixture sit for at least eight hours.

While the mixture rested, the biodiesel novices were invited to see samples of ugly batches. Some were thick, cloudy, and white or dark brown. "It likes making soap more than it likes to make biodiesel," explained Alovert. "Maybe the reaction was too cold, or there was excess water in the oil, or there were free fatty acids from old, mucky food oil."

Soon the sample batch was ready for decanting. In a one-liter batch, the top 4/5 of fuel can be carefully poured out to separate it from the glob of glycerin below. Larger batches require a pump or processor with a spigot at the bottom to separate the layers.

That glob of glycerin is the nemesis of all homebrewers. It's heavy, sticky, unpleasant smelling, and too crude to be used easily for soap-making. The perennial question of all homebrewers is, "So, what do you do with your glycerin?" Glycerin can be composted after letting the residual methane evaporate. One homebrewer has purified her glycerin and mixed it with goat milk to make an elegant soap. On noxious plants it has been used as a biodegradable defoliant. Unfortunately, glycerin is tasty for bears, as one backwoods biodiesel maker found out. Homebrewers and commercial producers alike would be delighted to hear of any more suggestions for the use of glycerin.

The glistening golden biodiesel was not quite ready to be poured into a fuel tank. Alovert always encourages homebrewers to "wash" the fuel several times to remove soap residues. It's incredible that after carefully warming the oil to remove all water, the final product should be washed with water, but it works. Various methods are explained for dripping water through the fuel, to attach to free-floating soaps and let them settle on the bottom. The final product should be a lighter color, very clear, with a neutral pH.

Kumar Plocher explained his reasons for teaching people to make the product he is marketing. "By teaching people how to make small batches, I am empowering them to stop big companies. This is not possible with conventional fuel because no one can make petroleum in their backyard. Most people don't want to make their own, but if it gets to the point where you have to, you can."

Biodiesel can be made by homebrewers for as little as fifty cents a gallon. Biodiesel coops and filling stations are increasing rapidly around the US, narrowing the price difference between commercial biodiesel and petroleum diesel. But Plocher is always quick to point out the true cost of petroleum diesel: environmental devastation, trillions of dollars for military defense, and the fact that it takes more energy to extract petroleum from the earth and refine it than the amount of energy produced.

If you'd like to learn how to make biodiesel, girl mark has workshops planned in many corners of the USA. For more information, see her website at: www.localB100.com. If you'd like information about purchasing biodiesel or biodiesel in general, Yokayo Biofuels has an informative website with many resource links. Check them out at: www.ybiofuels.org.

Biodiesel News

From BioDiesel, the site of the National Biodiesel Board

Kerry Calls for Biodiesel Plan
(August 6, 2004) -- The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) and the American Soybean Association (ASA) today commended Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry for including broad renewable fuel provisions in his energy plan. The plan includes a biodiesel tax incentive to help diversify America’s energy supply.

Maine to Heat More State Buildings with Biodiesel
(August 5, 2004) -- Maine will heat its State House and some Capitol buildings this fall with B10, purchasing 330,000 gallons more biodiesel than the state did last year.

Vice President Confirms Need for Biodiesel Tax Incentive
(July 21, 2004) -- The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) and the American Soybean Association (ASA) today commended Vice President Cheney, who spearheaded the President’s Energy Taskforce, for stressing the importance of passing legislation with a biodiesel tax incentive to help diversify America’s energy supply. The groups also called for action in pushing Congress to pass the incentive.

Willie Nelson Fuels New Mercedes with Biodiesel
(June 29, 2004) -- Willie Nelson has fueled millions of fans worldwide with music for decades, but when it comes to his fuel of choice, the country music star has proclaimed himself a fan of biodiesel.

18 Million Gallon Plant Re-Opens in Florida
(May 28, 2004) -- World Energy Alternatives, LLC has announced the re-opening and upgrading of the largest multi-feedstock biodiesel production facility in the United States.

Biodiesel Resources

Yokayo Biofuels is dedicated to promoting the use of biodiesel in northern California. Yokao operates the Ukiah Biodiesel Pumping Station in Hopland, California, 15 minutes South on Highway 101. From Highway 101, exit Talmage Rd. Turn West, cross railroad tracks and begin watching for Yokayo Biofuels on left. Corner of Talmage and Perry. Entrance on Perry. Hours: Monday - Friday 9:00am - 5:00pm. Yokayo Biofuels, 150 Perry Street, Ukiah, CA 95482,
(707) 472-0900, Fax: (707) 462-7603, Toll-free: (877) 806-0900.
Kumar Plocher - kumar@ybiofuels.org. Sunny Beaver - sunny@ybiofuels.org

The Biodiesel Education Network (BEN) is up and running! A partnership between the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) and the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA) has led to the introduction of a new expert in biodiesel, BEN, to answer petroleum distributors’ questions.

International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. David Blume, Director of the IIEA and author of the long-suppressed but soon-to-be-forthcoming book (2005), Alcohol Can Be a Gas. Contact IIEA at (831) 688-0338, 1-888-PERMACULTURE (888-737-6228), or at www.permaculture.com

Grassolean Solutions. Charris Ben Ford is the founder of Grassolean Solutions LLC, an organization devoted to providing people with sustainable energy information and products. Charris is also a "bio-rapper" who chants the joys of bio-fuels and other hip hops under the stage name "The Granola Ayatollah of Canola." www.grassolean.com

Locate a US Biodiesel Supplier. Click anywhere on the map at this site to find biodiesel retail locations in the United States. (Note: This map has not been updated to show suppliers on the West Coast.)

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