biodiesel Archive

Where We Come From, Where We’re Going

-By Andrew Whalen. Photos by Elliot Whalen

Travel has never been easier than for us 21st century kids, or more complicated. Sometime between Starbucks’ assault on the Forbidden City (and let’s not forget the reach of Micky D’s, especially since they’ve reached Cuzco) and the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the institution of globe-trotting revealed its true nature as a double-edged sword. While I still believe the cross-cultural understanding fostered by global travel outweighs its negatives, we can no longer ignore that travel by airplane, bus, train, and car is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and that globalization gone wrong can homogenize and crowd out the very far-flung cultures we go to such lengths to see. Of course, being the conscientious young folk we are, we decided our grand South American adventure must have the daintiest footprint possible. On the cultural front, we figured that with some pre-trip research, constant vigilance against the inner jackass, and a little charm, we’d come out in the black. Emissions proved a more adept adversary, but the match has been an excellent teacher. Thus began our ongoing education in alternative energy.

Researching alternatives to a fossil-fuel powered road trip, we quickly ruled out electrical cars. We figured we didn’t have the greenbacks to pay for one and that recharging would be difficult in a region of underdeveloped national electrical grids. Meanwhile, Drew had heard about a guy who drove around the world using vegetable and animal oils and anything he could get his hands on for fuel, including the fat of a pig he was forced to boil down while stranded in some far flung mountain village where he couldn’t come up with anything else. Ever the suckers for adventure and pigs, the rest of us were sold on biofuel almost immediately. It couldn’t be just any biofuel, we decided. It had to come from used vegetable oil or nothing at all.  Why used vegetable oil? Well, watching the food vs. fuel debate play out during the 2008 global food price spike, and how the race for biofuels had unintended consequences down here in the Amazon, we decided the whole growing your fuel thing was too messy – not to mention impractical for on-the-move vagabonds.

Once we knew our car would run on used vegetable oil, our only problem was that we had no idea how to run our car on used vegetable oil. Thankfully Al Gore built the oracle, and upon consulting it we discovered an entire community of like-minded individuals dedicated to doing just such a thing. The oracle told Drew of a biofuel guru in the Bay Area that went by the name of Girl Mark and sent us out to scour the crunchiest corners of Berkeley, California to find her. Find her we did not, but at the Biofuel Oasis co-op fueling station, we found the next best thing: Maria “Mark” Alovert’s Biodiesel Homebrew Guide Edition 10.5: “Everything you need to know to make quality alternative diesel fuel out of waste restaurant fryer oil.”

While Mark’s guide would become our biofuel bible, Biofuel Oasis also gave us a first-hand view of how biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil could work on a large scale. As we examined the gas station’s charming biofuel book and souvenir shop, we watched card-carrying members of the station’s collective come and go, filling their tanks with biodiesel produced from used vegetable oil collected at restaurants all around the city.

As the friendly fueling station attendees explained, and we later researched at length in our new bible, we had two options for running our car on used oil. The first is home-brewing our own biodiesel in a process called transesterification. Though it sounds scary and torturous, it’s relatively straightforward. The equation goes something like this: react methanol with used vegetable oil, using sodium hydroxide or lye as a catalyst, and you get biodiesel and a few byproducts including glycerol and household soap. For a walk through of the process courtesy of Kenyi García Cervantes, head chemist at Reth Córdova del Carpio’s EPA, see the short film we’ve posted above. We briefly considered finding a way to do the chemical reaction on the fly, perhaps involving a washing machine mounted on a bicycle as a rustic, transportable reactor to mix veggie oil and methoxide (another Drew special courtesy of “some guy at MIT” who ignored our emails). We dropped the idea pretty quick once we had a close look at the time-consuming process and decided it didn’t jive with our impatient itinerary. It was a good thing too, as we were later told that methanol can be hard to come by in these parts.

The second option was to install a straight vegetable oil conversion system, or SVO system, in our car and run it on unmodified used vegetable oil. The ease of collecting oil from restaurants and dumping it straight into a second tank installed in our car was very appealing for a long road trip, so we started researching companies that manufacture the kits, and looking into how the hell we were going to get one of them down to Lima and installed in a car. Thankfully, while the oracle had sent Drew and me to Berkeley, it had firmly deposited Sr. Kote in a far corner of the worldwide web dedicated entirely to all things Volkswagon. There, by a stroke of good fortune, young Miguelcito found the car we were all born to drive: a campervan equipped with a straight vegetable oil system installed by Plantdrive in British Colombia, beds to sleep four, a minifridge, and a stove, on its way to Santiago, Chile. A jolly Canadian-American couple drove her down from the Pacific Northwest, through the lower 48, then Mexico and Central America, shipped her across the Darien Gap, with plans to hawk her off and use the money to start up a hostel and live happily every after in Buenos Aires, Rio, or some happening Latin locale.

Thus, we became the proud owner of Mango, the omnivore campervan. I say omnivore because of the essential trick that enables the SVO to function: we start the car up on diesel for about five minutes to give the fuel system, modified during installation, enough time to heat up and thin the used vegetable oil to the viscosity of petroleum diesel. Before we turn the car off we also run it on diesel for about five minutes, to flush the system of veggie oil. Veggie oil is thicker than diesel, and if put straight into your car’s tank without thinning, it can leave heavy carbon deposits that wear on your engine or precipitate instant mechanical death. And of course, before we put the used oil into our second tank we have to filter it to remove chunks of French fry, chicken, or whatever else our donor restaurants felt like frying up. Obviously, we try to rotate cuisines with our donor restaurants, to keep Mango’s B.O. from getting monotonous.

A lot of people are shocked when we tell them we are running our car on used vegetable oil, either because they had never heard of biofuels at all, or they had heard of refined biodiesel but never of running an engine on 100% unmodified, used veggie oil. To keep those conversations quick and not boring, I’ve come up with a few fun facts about the diesel engine, provided by, who else, Miss Mark: an early version of the diesel engine displayed at the 1918 world fair ran on peanut oil from French African colonies, several countries used vegetable oil to replace or extend petroleum diesel on the homefront during WWII, and crackpot homebrewers have been experimenting with second, veggie oil tanks in their cars in the Northern hemisphere since the 1970s oil shocks.

Another question we tend to get is whether it’s been hard to convince restaurants to give us oil. Unlike the U.S., where restaurants change their cooking oil frequently, restaurants down here may not change the cruddy oil that dishes up your French fries and chicken nuggets for months. Poorer and less educated regions also don’t have the environmental consciousness to properly dispose of the oil, so when they do get rid of it they dump it in the sewer, causing serious problems for urban water supplies. Despite all this, on average, we’ve struck greasy gold at the third or fourth restaurant we try for oil. We’ve got a full schpiel that gets better with age, especially since we printed Verdant Collective business cards, and set up a restaurant owner photo blog on our site. It also helped when we ditched the 30 cent pollerias for more upscale restaurants, which are more likely to change their oil frequently, save it for proper disposal, and invite us to a chilled beverage when we lay on the charm especially thick.

Lastly, we are often asked if used veggie oil is carbon neutral. Plantdrive, the company that installed our system, claims that “SVO is a carbon dioxide neutral fuel since plants capture CO2 and then it is released again when the oil from the plants is burned.” I’ll let you be the judge of that. Like any fuel burned in combustion engine, waste vegetable oil emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants, but as you can see in plant drive’s graph, particulate matter or soot content in waste veggie oil emissions is much lower than regular diesel. Is waste oil the end all solution to climate change and energy consumption? Of course not. For us, fueling our road trip with veggie oil is all about making people revisit their assumptions about waste, recycling, and energy consumption. As a U.S.-style consumer economy spreads across the world, finding multiple uses for our limited resources and so-called waste has never been more urgent, and recycling is a practice we can no longer think of as an uninvolved, hands-off activity. Again, we’re no experts or engineers, but we can hope to inspire.

So that’s our whole biodiesel shebang. Now that I’ve put you through all this, I’ll inform you that while straight vegetable oil is an alternative fuel source, it is not technically biodiesel. It has to be refined through the transesterification process to carry that namesake. But you know, details. If you do choose to follow in our footsteps and install an SVO system in your vehicle, be warned that it provides mechanics with an easy, and undeserving scapegoat when their fixes go awry. We’re told this is worse in the States, where dealership mechanics fear what they don’t understand.

For those looking to follow in Reth’s footsteps and start up your own backyard biodiesel refinery, or even a local green business, here are a few websites: www.localb100.com, www.biodieselnow.com, www.biodiesel.org, and www.biodieselcommunity.org.

Reth & Peru’s EPA

While in Arequipa, we decided to go hunting for a biodiesel company that had gotten a little bit of publicity in Lima’s newspapers. We had read that the company collected used vegetable oil from local restaurants and was looking into promoting the fuel for the city’s buses and combivans as a few cities, such as San Francsico, have done. I expected an informal, overall-wearing organization of young environmentalists. When we pulled our van into the right lot, alongside a swath of more likely mechanics & tire stores, we were greeted instead by an upscale office building and a lobby full of architectural models & hanging plants. From the lobby, we were led to an office filled with models of cars, trucks, and things that go. It was the office of Reth Córdova del Carpio, one of two brothers running Holding Quimera, a collection of diverse enterprises from waste management to hotel development.

The biodiesel company is a piece of one of those enterprises, under the larger environmentally focused venture, called, by coincidence, the Empresa de Protección Ambiental or EPA.  The EPA is Reth’s pet project, attempting to improve environmental conditions in Arequipa through a number of recycling and safe waste disposal projects. Among it’s more ambitious projects is a plan to build Arequipa’s first toxic waste treatment facility. Currently, the project has been stalled by a number of bureaucratic roadblocks. In the meantime, toxic waste goes untreated and ends up primarily in rivers in and surrounding Arequipa. Peru has only one toxic waste treatment site, and of course, it’s up in Lima. Other projects include recycling used tires and used motor oil, which otherwise is often illegally burned as fuel, a heavily polluting activity.

The biodiesel project is an attempt to recycle the biggest pollutant of Arequipa’s rivers, cooking oil, while making available a cleaner diesel fuel. Most cooking oil is simply poured down the drain after it has been used. Reth and his team have placed barrels around the city at willing restaurants to collect used cooking oil which is then processed and turned into biodiesel usable in any diesel vehicle. The biodiesel they produce gets an average of 5 km/gallon better than standard diesel and releases about half the pollutants by eliminating the presence of metals like lead in the exhaust.

Sadly, the EPA’s biofuel initiative is limited by inertia among restaurant owners and a black market for cooking oil. While the process of disposing used cooking oil in EPA containers is as easy as dumping it down the drain, many restaurant owners see no reason to change their practices. Furthermore, there is a black market for used cooking oil. Restaurants that change their vegetable oil with some regularity can sell their cooking oil to less expensive restaurants (particularly in Lima) who continue to use the oil, posing a serious health risk. As a result, the EPA collects less than 300 gallons a month of used vegetable oil, while they could easily be processing 3,000-6,000 gallons. Currently, the biodiesel is used for company cars, but once used oil collection reaches a higher level, the fuel will be commercially available. Reth believes that a major component of the solution is greater education of environmental issues in schools as well as an awareness campaign for the general population of Arequipa.

While telling us about the EPA, Reth is animated. A self-made man, Reth has reached a point in his career where he can work on projects with a broad social scope and he is clearly excited about the potential of the EPA. He is open as well about the frustration of attempting to change the practices of a city with little education on sustainability.  As Arequipa undergoes a transformation to a modern and booming city, Reth’s focus on environmental issues is timely and essential.

The following morning Reth takes us to his biodiesel workshop, which takes up a small building in a lot jammed with tires, newspapers, and car parts all waiting to be recycled. A chemical engineer, Kenyi, walks us through the process of making biodiesel through the tranestherification, which involves multiples steps to removing any cooking residues and oddly leaves behind a substance that looks surprisingly like fancy cheese.

If you’re interested in helping the EPA create the first commercially available source of recycled biofuels in Arequipa, Peru and helping promote recycling in the city in general along with initiating plans for public education of sustainability, you can contact Reth at rcordova@quimerahg.com

-Drew, Photos by Elliot

The Road to Arequipa

Puerto Inca’s Abbey Road. Click here for the socks version

We made tracks from Nazca on down to Arequipa, Peru’s white city, camping on sandy beaches in beautiful desert coves. First stop was Puerto Inca, once the main port of the Inca empire. From here, the Inca Chasqui relay runners ran the morning’s catch all the way up and over the towering Andes to the Inca capital of Cuzco, so the Inca could dine on fresh Corbina and Lenguado, or Sole.

Road’s end

After a morning swim, we toured the ruins of seaside Inca homes and storehouses that run up the hillside away from the cove, behind a cluster of bungalows built by the Puerto Inka resort.

A pensive moment

We took a long hike through desert moonscapes and down into rocky coves awash in foamy turquoise and emerald water.  Humboldt penguins are said to shack up around these parts, but we missed them.

Black pavement, pink sky. Mongo takes a sunset shot

Drew and Katarina went for an aborted, cove-hopping swim that ended with Drew gouging his foot on a sea urchin as he bolted to escape the icy waters. The southern Pacific’s Humboldt current is not for the light-hearted: the water temp felt like it dropped at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the 1,000 kilometers we traveled from my Lima surf spots. It was like taking a dip in Lake Tahoe in May, for those that have had the misfortune.

Burning man, meet Peru

On the road, Mongo proves to be strong like bull but slow like turtle. Though we didn’t get very far on any given day, the camping is great anywhere we pulled over along the Pan-American.

Camp at no place in particular on the side of the Pan-Americana

Our final stop came in La Punta beach, Camana. The long beach stretches past the horizon for miles on each end, but that Sunday you couldn’t see a speck of sand it was so full of day-trippers from Arequipa.

La Punta Beach = Little Tahiti

We tucked into a beachside hut for fresh cebiche and a couple of rounds of sweet Maracuja juice, spiking it with the last of La Blanco´s Pisco acholado from our T’inka sendoff celebration. As our food hangover kicked in we sat and watched kids whip past our perch in ATVs, and decided we needed one more day on the beach before heading up into the Andes. I think there’s an unwritten rule that says when you quit your job you have to spend at least a week with your shirt off near a body of water. If there isn’t, there is now.

Home, Sweet Home, La Punta Beach, Camana

By dusk La Punta is empty, and all ours. We are treated to a parade of bright orange crabs scuttling back and forth along the tide line as the sun goes down, and again the next day during our salty morning bath.

View from Arequipa rooftops up to Chichani and Pichu Pichu mountains: Lovely smogset…

Colonial Arequipa is a welcome respite from the road. Ringed by no longer white volcanic peaks, and built of pearly white volcanic stone, or sillar, the prosperous oasis city is in many ways Peru at its best. We tuck into delicious jumbo river shrimp soups, barhop down cobblestone alleys, and tour a dimly lit museum housing one of Peru’s strangest marvels – a fully preserved Inca ice princess under freezing glass – all under the benevolent gaze of the spectacular El Misti volcano.

Colonial Arequipa

Arequipa’s got the rep of being Peru’s elegant second city and a bastion of rich conservatism, even though it has the distinction of producing the messianic founder of the Maoist Shining Path, Abimael Guzman.

He eats, he sleeps: Burrito Miguelito

The city is also well known for its hospitality, however, and it didn’t disappoint, thanks to local green businessman Reth Córdova. After giving us a crash course in the pitfalls of Peruvian biodiesel production, Reth was kind enough to invite us out to Paladar, an excellent Turkish-Peruvian restaurant he partly owns, and to take us up to his second home in the majestic Colca Canyon. And of course, he loaded us up with a full tank of turbo juice.

Off to Colca Canyon. Nothing like a full tank of wegetables

- Andy, Photos by Elliot

Veggie Fill, Trial 1

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