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Alachua Biodiesel Company Field Trip

By: Patrick O'Donoughue, Ajoke Agboola and Cherona Levy

On May 30th, the interns took their first field trip to visit an emerging biodiesel company in Northeast Gainesville. The Alachua County Biodiesel Company, as it is known, is housed in a small commercial garage. The operation is relatively low key, but the company has serious aspirations for expansion. With storage and mixing tanks accounting for most of the equipment, expanded production requires bigger tanks. More produced biodiesel means that more people in Gainesville would have access to that biodiesel. With the concerns of petroleum fuels lately, the Alachua Biodiesel Company may have struck gold, while providing a valuable service to the city of Gainesville.

Biodiesel is basically a fuel that is the product of biological oils and can be run in diesel engines. Though chemically different from petroleum diesel, biodiesel is similar in its performance in diesel engines. Since derived from biological forms, biodiesel has the benefit of releasing carbon that was originally atmospheric carbon. In essence, the plants that provide the oil for biodiesel absorb atmospheric carbon during photosynthesis over the course of their lives. This atmospheric carbon is then released back into the atmosphere when the biodiesel is combusted in the engine. Thus, biodiesel is nearly a carbon neutral fuel. In addition, biodiesel produces significantly less sulfur dioxide (which forms acid rain) and other toxic emission compared to petroleum diesel.

At Alachua Biodiesel Company, the feedstock for biodiesel production is obtained from local restaurants. Another name for waste oils from restaurants is “yellow grease”. The benefit of waste vegetable oil is that it is obtained locally for very little cost. The drawback is the oil quality; due to overuse some waste vegetable oil cannot be used or produces low quality biodiesel. The other detriment of waste vegetable oil is that it makes selling the oil very difficult. In order to sell biodiesel, the feedstock must be tested and certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials. The cost of performing this test is very high. Further, with waste vegetable oil of varying sources, this test must be performed on every batch. As result, Alachua Biodiesel Company cannot afford to certify their biodiesel. ASTM certification would allow the company to sell their biodiesel retail just like any gas station; however, without the certification the company has had to resort to other means. In the future, the company hopes to obtain certification by using oil from a single source, such as soybean oil, allowing one certification test to cover all batches made from this oil source. In the mean time though, Alachua Biodiesel Company has set up a Co-op to allow them to sell their biodiesel. The “Sun State Co-op” has a membership fee, which is paid up front and entitles you to a portion of the biodiesel. As a member of the co-op you are basically part owner/employee and can contribute labor or waste vegetable oil receiving a better price as result.

Switching to biodiesel for most diesel engines is an easy task. One hurdle is the temperature at which the biodiesel solidifies. Since derived from vegetable oil, biodiesel congeals below a certain temperature. Though not a problem for car owners in the South, above the Mason Dixon line cars would need to be equipped with gas tank heaters. Another hurdle is that diesel cars made before 1994 have hoses and seals that are easily eroded by biodiesel. Diesel engines made after 1994 use a different material and thus do not have this problem. This would require simply switching the hoses and gaskets in your engine. These are the only modifications that car owners would need to make, and are relatively cheap and easy to do.

There are many benefits of switching to biodiesel, beginning with the environmental benefits of lowered sulfur, carbon and other green house gas emissions, in addition to being a biodegradable fuel. Biodiesel is also a safer fuel than petrol diesel,combusting at significantly higher temperatures, thus reducing the risk of ignition or explosion during leaks. At a constant price of $2.75 per gallon, its financial benefits will increase with rising fossil fuel prices. Lastly, it is American made, thereby reducing our dependence on foreign oil. It is clear that with energy security issues, rising gas prices, and global warming, biodiesel offers an alternative to help with our energy woes.

For more information contact Scott Davies: scott@alachuabiodiesel.com. Or check their website alachuabiodiesel.com