September 18, 2009
Story and Photo by Ken Krayeske • 9:45 PM EST
It's not the clearest image - off a cell phone, no less - but this is a veggie oil Yale Shuttle bus - on the side it says "Biodiesel Powered." Yale's website has a better pic.
I hate cars. But cars are a fact of life in Connecticut. This should not be. But it is.
I moved to Hartford in 1998 so I could bicycle to work, and for years, I kept a calendar tracking car free days.
But now, I have a job requiring a 40-mile round trip commute. To find some peace within this tyranny of travel, after I wrecked my 1993 Honda Civic in October 2006 (working a different car-dependent job), I bought a diesel VW Jetta with the goal of using biodiesel to kick my addiction to foreign oil.
When Karl Benz invented the diesel engine, he envisioned a flexible fuel engine that could run on veggie oil, diesel or biodiesel. Biodiesel makes your car run cleaner (less frequent oil changes, etc) and you emit 70 percent less carbon.
The best part of this non-fossil fuel is that ordinary people can mix biodiesel in their garages with methanol, lye and used vegetable oil from restaurants. I hoped that a diesel car could help me attain fuel self-sufficiency.
While running with biodiesel doesn't eliminate traffic, or any government policies that slant the transportation system towards the automobile, the wealthy and the suburbs, biodiesel would make me feel better about not relying on war to get around.
Making a gallon of biodiesel costs about two dollars - a dollar for materials (equipment, methanol and lye) and a dollar for the labor. Building relationships with restaurants, collecting the veggie oil, filtering it, mixing it, cleaning up after the chemical reaction, and pumping it into your car all take time, which is money. This is all still cheaper than ExxonMobil’s sulfur-free diesel, which still spews mercury and Sox and Nox into the atmosphere.
Other biodieselers seem to handle the mixing and using of biodiesel without a problem. It seemed so simple at first that I dreamed of a bio cooperative where diesel drivers pool resources to insure a stable flow of clean fuel - a closed loop industrial process that recycles oil from local eateries and creates a few jobs, too.
But my bad car karma (or, my car-ma) has led to me to declare my experiments with the alternative fuel a failure.
The tribulations of my used 1999 Volkswagen Jetta TDI began with the engine being replaced under warranty in December 2006, two months after I bought it. In June 2007, my dad, trying to be a nice guy, accidentally filled my tank with unleaded instead of diesel.
Mistakes happen, so I can't hold that against my dad, especially considering that before graduating college, I totaled four of his cars – a '77 Chevy Nova, a '72 Dodge Dart, an '83 Ford Escort, and an '87 Firebird.
Obviously, that I am not the world's best driver contributes to my loathing of my dependence on automobiles. Yet I figured that making my own fuel might repair some of my bad car-ma.
So after paying a mechanic to drain the unleaded from my diesel, I started in earnest trying to mix biodiesel. A friend of mine has been mixing his own biodiesel for years, and I learned from him.
He has several 55-gallon drums in his garage to make the biodiesel in stages. He used one to pour and filter the used vegetable oil he collected from nearby restaurants. Once the drum had 40 gallons of filtered veggie oil, he placed a motor with a propeller into the drum.
It was almost ready to mix. The next step was to test the acidity of the veggie oil with a ph meter. The ph reading determines the proportion of sodium hydroxide, or lye, that you need to mix in to exactly six gallons of methanol.
Once the lye was mixed into the methanol, this methanol-lye catalyst mixture becomes hot to the touch. Then you dump the six gallons of catalyst mixture into the 40 gallons of veggie oil and turn on the motor to mix the components.
The methanol-lye catalyst reacts with the veggie oil in two ways. The lye binds with free radicals in the veggie oil to create glycerine, which is used in fancy expensive soaps. Simultaneously, the methanol molecules bind to the veggie oil creating biodiesel.
You can see the reaction working after a few minutes, when caramel colored swirls of liquid begin to appear on the surface of the dark veggie oil – that is the biodiesel. The glycerine sinks to the bottom of the fuel drum.
Usually, the glycerine separates fully, but once a piece found its way into my tank and clogged my fuel line, stalling my car during rush hour on I-84 Westbound, under the Main Street tunnel, meriting a call to AAA and a tow to the garage.
Had I filtered better or washed the biodiesel with water, that wouldn’t have happened. But washing takes time, and creates another byproduct - dirty water. Without one-time mishaps like this fuel line clog, the biodiesel elevated my fuel mileage to more than 50 miles to the gallon. Plus, my exhaust smelled like fried foods.
Biodiesel has two other small problems. First, the methanol is highly corrosive, and if the fuel hoses on the engine are the wrong kind, the methanol will break down the rubber and clog your fuel filter. Second, mechanics are scared to work on cars that run bio because they know so little about it.
The first time the fuel pressure in my car ran so high that the fuel hoses jumped off the injector nipples on the engine block, the mechanic in Vermont repaired the hoses in five minutes, just enough of a fix so I could return to Connecticut.
VW knows that methanol is corrosive, and has made neoprene rubber fuel lines to compensate since 1997, according to what I have read. I recently concluded, though, that the mechanic who replaced my engine after it first broke in December 2006 must not have used these high-grade hoses.
This conclusion arrived on Sunday, about the same time I pulled my Jetta into my sister’s house and my father pointed out that it was spitting biodiesel on the road. I popped the hood, and saw the hose off the nipple, and realized it had deterioriated, and the fuel pressure was high.
I am waiting for an official diagnosis from the garage where my brother-in-law used to have his German car serviced. My younger sister lent me her car Sunday night, and driving her vehicle home, I wanted to be done with cars.
I wondered if mastering bus schedules, rideshare boards, and carpool opportunities, combined with my trusty stable of bicycles could get my body from place to place in the Nutmeg state.
A lawyer friend of mine tried this. He and his very patient wife tried to run a two-child, two-job household on one car. Their experiment lasted six months before they acquired a second auto.
Between law school classes, and the demand to pay tuition, my life is no less complex. My friend’s limited success dimmed my hopes for being car-free and care-free.
Without a doubt, many people in Hartford live without cars. This state of carlessness is both a cause and an effect of poverty. Yet even the Catholic Workers in the North End, who have taken voluntary vows of poverty, utilize automobiles.
So here I am, thousands of miles, hundreds of gallons of biodiesel and tons of words later, still trapped in the radical monopoly of the automobile transportation system. You need a car to live in Connecticut.
I have considered abandoning the biodiesel project because of these frustrating failures. The encouragement of one mechanic - who charged me $100 to diagnose my car a total loss - ring in my ears: Where would we be if Henry Ford gave up after one failure? he asked.
Perhaps taking the train to work?