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Vegetable Oil Provides Cleaner Fuel Alternative for Environment

Bio-diesel has been used extensively in Europe for over 20 years, but in the United States it's still a rare commodity at the pump. So Peter Arnold, an environmental educator in Wiscasset, Maine, makes his own. Three days a week, he drives his sky blue pick-up truck to the Sea Basket restaurant along Route One. He uses a hydraulic hoist to unload two empty barrels and pick up two 200-liter drums filled with used frying oil. The restaurant owner leaves them for him behind the kitchen.

"If we were picking up a lot more oil we'd have to figure out a different way to do it. But at this scale it's just the right way to do it," Mr. Arnold said.

Mr. Arnold takes the oil back to the Chewonki Institute, where he uses it to heat the facility's buildings and power its tractors. It's also an instructional aid for his high school environmental science and conservation classes.

In a corrugated steel shed, he's rigged up a small bio-fuel demonstration for today's lesson.

Twelve students follow him in and gaze at the contraption. It consists of several elements a small pump is attached to a tank on the floor, which has a rubber hose running out its side upward to another tank sitting on a raised platform.

"So it isn't very elegant but it changes vegetable oil into a bio-fuel and it starts with this thing, which is a sump pump," Mr. Arnold said.

The sump pump propels the used cooking oil upward to the reaction tank, where it's mixed with methanol and lye. To start the chemical reaction, Mr. Arnold heats the mixture to 49 degrees Celsius, stirs it, and lets it sit for eight hours. As it cools, syrupy glycerin settles to the bottom and is siphoned off. What's left behind is distilled bio-diesel fuel, ready to be used in any vehicle that runs on petroleum diesel including Mr. Arnold's Volvo station wagon.

As he turns the ignition key, the wide-eyed teenagers gather around the car, watching the exhaust turn from grayish puffs into an almost transparent mist curling out of the tail pipe.

"There's no sulfur in vegetable oil, so there's no sulfur dioxide formed. Sulfur dioxide is the pre-cursor of acid rain. So we've cleaned up now, we've got nice clean exhaust, it smells like French fries. That's cool. And we made it ourselves. That's even cooler," he said.

But after the cheering stops, the students have an important question.

"What if we want to use bio-diesel in our cars at home? What if random civilians want to use bio-diesel? Is it available to people or do you have to move to Europe or Chewonki to use it?" a student asks.

Arnold: "No, you don't. I would urge you to talk to your local fuel supplier and say I'd really like you to carry bio-diesel."

Although there are some bio-diesel stations around the country, so far in Maine, there's only one commercial source, and it's not widely advertised. But John Wathen, who works for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, knows where to find it, and he's willing to pay a little more to keep his engine and his conscience - running cleaner. He mixes the soybean oil derivative with regular diesel fuel.

"At 40 percent, which is a nice blend for much of the year, it costs me about an extra penny a mile to drive, and at twenty per cent (bio-diesel to 80% diesel), it's really only 10 or 15 cents more a gallon than pure diesel, so it's really not a big consideration," Mr. Wathen said.

Once a week, Mr. Wathen makes the hour-long trip to the Solar Market in Arundel, Maine, where he fills his 20 liter jugs from a 40,000 liter storage cylinder.

Solar Market owner Noato Inoye said he doesn't make much profit right now, but he's convinced bio-diesel will slowly win converts. He hopes it will also spur local farmers to grow soybeans or rapeseed, and turn the oil into cash. Right now, he buys the soybean-based fuel from a wholesaler in Boston, Massachusetts a two-hour drive to the south.

"The bio-diesel production is gonna be a regional enterprise. It really doesn't make any sense to begin to transport bio-diesel that was created in Texas to sell it in Maine. We need to have our own bio-diesel refinery, and it could be a full-fledged industry all over the country," Mr. Inoye said.

Bio-diesel has been slow to catch on in northern states, where cold temperatures can solidify it if it's not blended with regular diesel. But it is being used in several mid-western and southern truck fleets and transit systems and on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Whether it finds a larger market depends in part on the U.S. government. The new farm bill includes more than $200 million to educate fuel buyers about the benefits of bio-diesel, as well as to expand the production of the fuel.