The Internet buzz went something like this: The fast-food giant McDonald's had a plan to set up recycling stations at each of its restaurants to convert used cooking grease into biodiesel, a nontoxic, biodegradable and renewable fuel.
"It turned out to be an April Fool's joke," said Megan Hartman. "But maybe that day will come."
The 29-year-old Maine native is so convinced of the environmental benefits of biodiesel, she plans to open a tank site in tiny Oracle to offer the fuel as a clean burning replacement for sooty, smelly petrodiesel.
A friend, Peter Cooke of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, originally turned Hartman on to the stuff. Last summer, she bought a used 1986 Volkswagen Jetta Diesel for $500 and the two started making pure "rot-gut" biodiesel in a 55-gallon drum.
They collected fryer grease from area restaurants and processed it using a recipe from the Internet. Biodiesel is basically vegetable oil or animal fat with the glycerin removed to make it less viscous and more easily combustible. Glycerin, by the way, is valued by the cosmetics industry for use in lotions, creams and other beauty products.
The conversion process, known as "transesterification," involves heating filtered grease, adding alcohol and a catalyst, in this case methanol and lye, which form a toxic brew, sodium methoxide.
"We'd stir it up, hold our breath and take turns dumping it into the oil - then we'd run," she said. "Once the oil and the sodium methoxide react, it's no longer toxic, but at first a big cloud of fumes comes up."
The pair rigged up a giant blender using a drill fitted with an extra-long rod suspended from 2 x 4's above the drum, and left the mixture to agitate for an hour.
"Then we let it sit for eight or 10 hours," she said. "The glycerin settles to the bottom, and any water that has entered the mix separates out as a soapy white residue on top of the glycerin." Pure or neat 100 percent biodiesel - B100 - can then be siphoned off the top.
"Some people use it straight, but it's better to wash it with water to remove excess methanol and unreacted alcohol," she said. "We put it in a big jug, add water and shake. The water separates out to the bottom because it's more dense than the biodiesel."
Hartman's Jetta runs great on bio-diesel, even after 225,000 miles. As for gas mileage, it gives the same high performance as regular diesel: about 45 mph in town and 60 mph on the highway. And the exhaust smells a lot better, more like popcorn or French fries. A 6-year-old friend of Hartman's told her, "Your car smells so good I want to eat it."
More intriguing was biodiesel's larger potential as a non-polluting fuel. "I had this idea, but I wasn't sure whether it was too far-fetched," she said.
Far-fetched it is not. Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, used peanut oil to run the first diesel engine exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. By the 1920s, cheap and efficient petroleum-based diesel fuel began to dominate the market.
Hartman decided to leave a psychology graduate program in Portland to try her hand in the fuels business after relatives offered her the use of their empty house in Oracle.
"I was tired of Maine winters," she said. "It's also easier to use biodiesel in a warm climate."
With her cat and possessions, Hartman drove to Oracle in March, carrying 30 gallons of biodiesel. "It's nonflammable," she said. "You can't set it off with a spark."
Soon after, at an alternative fuels' fair at the Foothills Mall, she met Bob Spotswood, division manager with Arizona Petroleum, which has offered soy-based biodiesel in southern Arizona since October. "That set the whole thing in motion," she said.
Coincidentally, the man who designed Arizona Petroleum's biodiesel tank system happened to live in Oracle. Hartman ordered a double-walled 1,000-gallon tank.
In May, she formed her company, Fourth Dimension Fuels. "In the scientific community, the fourth dimension refers to the concept of time," she said. "I'm not looking at this just in the short term." Hartman hasn't set a launch date yet, but is currently negotiating a possible tank site on Oracle's main drag, American Avenue.
This time, she wants to avoid the hassle of making it herself. "We had to go around to restaurants and get the oil and then strain it through panty hose to get out the french fries, buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks. It was pretty gross."
For her fuels business, Hartman plans to stock commercial quality B100 from Arizona Petroleum, which already supplies a mix of 80 percent regular diesel and 20 percent biodiesel (B20) to Raytheon Missile Systems and Sabino Canyon Tours Inc. The petroleum company uses B20 in all of its own diesel trucks and runs a retail B20 fuel site at its plant, 1015 S. Cherry Ave., in Tucson.
Biodiesel operates in compression-ignition engines, just like regular diesel at the pump, and runs any diesel vehicle. Favorites of the alternative fuel set include the Volkswagen diesel Jetta, Rabbit, Golf, Quantum, Dasher and Vanagon and Mercedes 2- and 3-series sedans and station wagons.
According to the U.S Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center Web site, biodiesel produces fewer particulates, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, all targeted as public health risks by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. The DOE Web site also noted: "Scientist's believe carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases contributing to global warning. Neat biodiesel (100 percent biodiesel) reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 75 percent over petroleum diesel. Using a blend of 20 percent biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent."
Raytheon has used 21,000 gallons of B20 in its heavy-duty diesel vehicles and generators since last November. "Basically anything with a diesel motor is now fueled with biodiesel," said Jim Crosby, Raytheon's fleet manager. "We love it. We have seen a complete seamless transition."
Tucson Electric Power began powering its diesel fleet with B20 in February.
"All of our diesels, including diesel-powered engines, everything that used to run on diesel now runs on biodiesel," said Joe Salkowski, a spokesperson for the utility.
"We decided biodiesel was the best solution for us," he added. "We have a lot of diesel equipment like our bucket trucks that would be hard or impossible to replace. This way we can continue using our existing fleet and still enjoy the environmental benefits. And the trucks like biodiesel just fine."
As of mid-June, TEP has used 53,000 gallons of biodiesel. If the utility continues at its current rate, its pollution savings over a year will include 565 pounds of carbon monoxide, 158 pounds of volatile organic compounds and 67 pounds of particulates.
"We like to do what we can to contribute to the quality of life here in town," Salkowski said. "It also earns us credits towards the Energy Policy Act of 1992."
The act requires the phasing in of alternative fuels for use by Federal and State fleets and some utilities.
"Biodiesel is just starting to take off," said Colleen Crowninshield, who coordinates the Tucson Regional Clean Cities Coalition through the Pima Association of Governments. "When you're looking at fleet vehicles, the cost of converting (to other alternative energy sources) is huge. A lot of companies can't absorb that cost. Biodiesel is attractive because there's no cost to convert."
The coalition, active since 1997, is part of a U.S. Department of Energy initiative to reduce dependence on foreign fossil fuels and increase alternative fuel use. It is now applying to the Environmental Protection Agency for a grant to use biodiesel in local school buses. The EPA's Clean School Bus USA Grant Program will provide $5 million in grants to help school bus fleets switch to cleaner burning fuel in an effort to limit children's exposure to the harmful effects of diesel exhaust.
With the possible exception of the city of Berkeley, Calif., which switched its diesel fleet to B100 in June, many companies using biodiesel today are cautiously starting with a B20 blend, even though the greatest emissions reductions are seen with B100.
Blends higher than B20 are considered fine for diesel vehicles built since 1994, but the jury is still out on using higher blends in older vehicles.
"Some say that B100 can corrode natural rubber in the fuel system," explained Hartman. After 1994, the car industry switched to synthetic rubber components, which are less susceptible to fuel system damage.
Besides experiencing a leaky hose after she used an unwashed batch of the homemade stuff, Hartman said the only problem she's experienced is gel in the fuel, a cold weather problem caused by congealing B100.
During Maine's freezing winters, she used a lower blend, B50, and as with regular diesel, an anti-gel. "And that's in cold weather," she said. "In Arizona, you can use B100 year round."
At the moment, biodiesel is more of an environmental decision than an economic one. Except for the homemade stuff, which ran Hartman about 50 cents a gallon (with a free supply of lye and grease), it's not cheap.
"B20 is roughly 20 cents a gallon higher than regular diesel, but the benefits to the environment are tremendous," Ariz-ona Petroleum's Spotswood said.
"And it reduces our dependence on foreign oil because it's made of pure soy oil, which is abundant." The price of regular diesel at the pump is about $1.50 to $1.75.
B100 runs roughly a dollar more than regular diesel. Hartman figures she'll have to sell B100 for $2.75 per gallon to make a 20- or 25-cent profit on the gallon. But she likens it to a lifestyle choice, "I could buy Cheetos or I could spend more on a healthy snack."
Buying biodiesel is kind of like buying organic: More expensive initially, but better for you (and the planet) in the long run.
"It's worth it because it has a clean, ripple effect on the environment."
Raytheon's fleet manager Crosby is interested in using a higher blend, but will probably wait until the price drops. "I would love to go to B100. It's better for the environment - we know that. I'm hoping demand will grow and give us a better price," he said. "We've got to clean up the environment and become less dependent on foreign petroleum."
Cost has been a limiting factor for the city of Tucson, which has been evaluating the idea of starting a biodiesel plant at its landfill. The plant could produce enough fuel for the city's diesel fleet and Sun Tran buses, which together consumed one million gallons of regular diesel last year.
Add in the school districts and the county, and that figure jumps to four million gallons of diesel annually, said Mark Schlieder, fleet equipment specialist for the city.
"We know that for air quality it makes great sense, we just don't know about the bucks yet," Schlieder said. "We're still looking at whether it's feasible."
One solution to the cost, at least for individuals, is to convert to a "greasecar," a variation on the do-it-yourself theme. Along with B100, Hartman plans to sell greasecar kits for $500 to $800. The kit modifies a diesel vehicle so that it can run on used restaurant grease. After the main tank warms up the car, a switch on the dashboard allows the engine to draw fuel from an extra tank in the spare-tire well. The extra tank holds the grease, which is heated via a coil to lower its viscosity and make it combust (obviating the methanol-lye procedure).
"You still have to collect and filter your own grease," she said. "But it's free. Most restaurants are happy to have you come get it."
Tucson Tallow currently charges 1,500 restaurants in Tucson to pick up and dispose of waste grease from their deep-fat fryers. The company cleans and processes the oil and sends 80,000 pounds per week to Mexico for animal feed.
So far, Hartman can count the number of biodiesel users in Tucson on two hands. But, like the name of her fuels company, she hopes to be around for the long haul.
"I really want to increase education and awareness," she said. "'I'm going on the experience 'if you build it they will come.'" In Maine, her former supplier - Solar Market - doubled its biodiesel sales, from 6,000 to 12,000 gallons a year, in just three years, without advertising.
Her dad, Ira Hartman, a high school physics and chemistry teacher, has become so interested in biodiesel that he just finished building a garage-workshop to manufacturer commercial quality biodeisel for the family's home heating oil.
"It's a contagious phenomenon," said the younger Hartman. "I've watched the way it's spread and it's really pretty exciting."