Biodiesel - Paolo Vidali

Paolo Vidali, a friend of my sister, has been making his own biodiesel in upstate New York for two years. He kindly answered some questions for us via e-mail about his experience.

What got you into biodiesel?

Around the buildup of the Iraq war, I started feeling trapped by my complacency with the situation through my consumption. I was extremely opposed to a war for oil, yet every week or so I had to fill up my Honda Civic with gas, and it started to drive me crazy. It wasn’t enough to simply boycott Mobil brand gas, or to “buy Citgo” to support Venezuela. I started researching online about alternative fuels, and decided that making ethanol seemed too complicated and expensive. You need to register as an alcohol distillery, and in NY the laws are pretty draconian about that. Eventually I hit upon biodiesel, and found that there was a group forming that had spun off an eco conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. I went to the next meeting, and began networking with people around the Hudson Valley that wanted to get involved with biodiesel. I was especially attracted by the idea that you can both go off the petroleum grid, as well as reclaim used vegetable oil and get more use out of it. I have worked on farms before, and the idea of turning something that’s already been used as food energy into car energy was appealing. I ended up selling my Civic and buying an old Mercedes-Benz diesel sedan which I taught myself how to repair. Then, along with the fledgling Hudson Valley Biodiesel Co-op members, we started making biodiesel.

How did you learn the creation process, and what were some of the challenges you ran into along the way?

I must admit that most of what I learned about biodiesel production was from the internet. I was very fortunate to meet a few people at the co-op who were a little ahead of the game, and had already begun experimenting and building processors in their garages. The guide written by girlMark (at was instrumental to all of us, and pretty much lays out how to build a processor. We pooled our money and skills–some carpenters, some engineers, some accountants, some landscapers–and built a collectively owned and run processor in Ulster County. Our challenges were primarily improving upon our initial design as we ran into leaks and problems, and figuring out where to get grease (WVO or Waste Vegetable Oil) that was good enough quality to use. I would say that the initial setup, from building the processor to doing the chemistry, is daunting, but with one or two people to walk you through it becomes easy. A processor can have 10 valves and two pumps and filters and so forth, so there’s a lot to keep track of, but with a diagram you can figure it out quickly.

Tell me about your creation process - how often do you make a batch, how much do the materials cost, where do you get your oil, how many labor hours do you put into it, etc?

I now run a processor with a friend of mine that we built together in his garage that’s closer to my house. The initial cost of the plumbing pieces, pumps, filters, and hardware will run from $300-$400, assuming you can salvage some 55 gallon drums and an electric hot water heater. The chemicals are cheapest when bought in bulk, which means a high up-front cost, but a lower per pound or per gallon price. We end up paying about $2.25/lb. for lye (KOH) and $3.25/gallon for methanol delivered. I collect oil from 4-5 restaurants, most of which use soybean oil and go through 5-10 gallons of oil a week. Since we do 30 gallon batches of biodiesel, we don’t need to collect that much oil per week. The interesting thing is that the restaurants are all different–one diner, one bagel shop, one high-end Italian place, etc. A lot of people will recommend Chinese or Japanese restaurants for their oil since they have high turnover and will change the oil a lot, but we haven’t needed to ask yet. Collecting is really the easy part, once you get over the hurdle of asking! It takes about 2 hours to run a batch, from pumping the grease into the processor to measuring and mixing chemicals. It takes about a week to wash the biodiesel (bubble water up with an aquarium air stone) to get the impurities out, so that’s a big bottleneck, though it only takes 20 minutes to drain and change the water each time, the rest can be done with timers. The end product, high-quality washed home-brew biodiesel, ends up costing 85 cents per gallon excluding labor. I’ve never kept track of my hours because of the opportunity to buck the oil companies, make my own fuel, and drastically reduce my emissions is truly priceless. Do expect to spend a few weeks of tinkering to get a processor working if you’re doing it by yourself or with only one other person.

How do you think biodiesel will be a part of the energy/fuels market in the future?

As I see it, the cost of oil and thus petroleum products will never go down again. We will never see gas for $1.80 a gallon. Fuel oil will never cost $1.09 a gallon. Those were prices only three years ago, and the growth in cost and oil company profit has been exponential. Here in the Northeast, heating companies are turning to biodiesel to not only improve their environmental standing, but to cut costs as petroleum outruns commercial grade biodiesel in price. I do agree with critics that biodiesel is not the end-all solution, and neither is ethanol. At their core, these alternative, “eco” fuels are based on mono-cropped, usually genetically-modified corn or soybean plants. Our current levels of consumption place unbelievable demand on our natural resources, and that has to change. What aggravates me is that American auto makers know how to build efficient cars, and they do it all the time. See the upcoming film Who Killed the Electric Car? for more on GM’s all-electric car produced in California under the Saturn division, and how it got (literally) crushed. There are turbodiesel Ford Ranger pickups, Chrysler Mini-vans, and Ford Focuses all over Latin America, Europe, and even Canada. My uncle in Italy drives a Ford Focus wagon (manual transmission) that gets 60MPG, yet Ford doesn’t sell it here. We have been conditioned as Americans to bite off more than we can chew, and somehow that has to change. The only interim solution I can see, having a 25 mile roundtrip commute myself, is to use alternative fuels and attempt to get people to adopt them more widely.

Recommended links for more information: Hudson Valley Biodiesel Cooperative, Community BioFuels, BiodieselNow forums, Infopop forums.

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