Biodiesel guru sees fuel joining mainstream

reporter's notebook A 29-year-old alternative fuel expert and writer is on a mission to make earth-friendly fuels mainstream.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
LOS ANGELES--Josh Tickell, who looks like a young version of the movie director Ron Howard in a banker's blue shirt, appears out of place in his Venice Beach neighborhood, which is best known for its hippies, hipsters and long stretches of sand.

But the 29-year-old biodiesel expert, as much as anyone around this eco-conscious community, is on the cutting edge of earth-first attitudes. Next month, his second book on biodiesel, called "Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle East Oil Dependence and Make Money Growing Fuel," is due out in bookstores.

Tickell knows biodiesel firsthand. Next to his small, unassuming house, a few steps from an organic garden, there's a pile of big steel drums that contain biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from vegetable or animal fats that he uses to fill up the diesel engine tank of his Volkswagen Jetta.

There's nothing unassuming about what Tickell and a growing number of Hollywood tastemakers want to do with that fuel. With gasoline prices rising and foreign fuel dependence a growing national security concern, some believe biodiesel, which the U.S. Energy Department says is gaining converts faster than any alternative fuel in America today, can be a key to the country's energy future.

"Biodiesel is a piece of a (bigger solution) to lower our energy footprint in the United States. Wind, solar, ethanol, biodiesel, we need all these technologies so that when anything happens in the world we don't get hit with not having anything," Tickell said.

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On Saturday, for example, a group of artists, writers and designers in the Los Angeles area, who call themselves the Biodiesel Co-op, opened their own members-only biodiesel fueling station in nearby Marina del Rey. The station is in a trailer behind a group of office buildings off Highway 90 and serves as a convenient place to fuel up for people driving diesel-engine cars, in the absence of other like stations.

Even New York Gov. George Pataki within the last week has proposed to make biodiesel and ethanol available in state service areas and gas stations as early as this year.

Still, most people don't know what biodiesel is, and it's hardly a panacea to America's dependence on oil. Many other gas alternatives are beginning to take off among U.S. carmakers and in other countries. Brazil, for example, has shifted in recent years from gasoline to ethanol, a fuel made with sugar. Ethanol releases less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. Currently, ethanol comprises 20 percent of the country's fuel consumption, according to a recent report.

Automakers are busy developing hybrid gas-electric engine cars for the U.S. market, as well as hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars. Toyota, General Motors and virtually every other major automobile manufacturer are also tinkering with a technology called Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI), which could boost fuel economy in cars by about 20 percent and generate fewer polluting hydrocarbons.

Powered by peanut oil
Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, promoted the use of peanut oil to power his car before his death in 1913. At the world's fair in Paris in 1900, the Otto Company displayed a small car running on peanut oil.

Still, the car powered purely by vegetable oil has become merely a hippie phenomenon. Pouring a vat of veggie oil in your nice new Mercedes-Benz diesel engine car will surely gum it up or foul the engine. But for an old clunker, it might do.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is a fuel that has undergone 50 million road miles of tests in the United States, Tickell said. Tickell himself drove the Veggie Van across the country more than a year ago promoting the alternative fuel.

It's made by pulling glycerin out of the vegetable oil molecule. The process thins the molecule to make it compatible with the diesel engine. The technology to make biodiesel involves mixing the oil with an alcohol, which is typically methanol, and a catalyst, which is usually lye (or sodium hydroxide).

In the best case scenario, in the next 20 years, biodiesel could take care of 25 percent of our diesel needs.
--Josh Tickell, biodiesel expert

"At the base of the biodiesel reaction is essentially a mixing process. Sure, there are other pieces at the refinery like more purification and distillation to make sure the fuel is very pure," Tickell said. But in the hobby sense, he said, "If you can make a margarita, you can make biodiesel."

Still, biodiesel has shortcomings. In cold weather, it can "gel" in the car. The use of it can also increase emissions of nitrogen oxides, emissions that have been thought to help create smog-forming ozone.

But supporters of biodiesel, which have included President Bush, believe it's a viable fuel alternative because it's based on a vegetable oil and can be grown and produced anywhere in the United States. It's also a sustainable source of energy, meaning that it can be developed year in and year out despite the availability of fossil fuels. Biodiesel is also compatible with diesel engines and can be mixed into current supplies of diesel fuel.

Biodiesel also reduces several emissions, according to its supporters, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Tickell was inspired to learn about alternative fuels because he grew up in Louisiana near several oil refineries and where many locals were diagnosed with cancer. Some research suggests that there's a link between the illness and environmental pollutants caused by oil production.

While finishing college, Tickell worked on a farm in the former East Germany, where farmers made and used biodiesel as a fuel for cars and tractors. A cooperative of local farmers pressed canola seeds in a small refinery to develop the fuel.

"Between 10 and 20 percent of their land was dedicated to just growing fuel crops, and the rest, that fueled the entire farm," he said.

Eighteen months ago, Tickell himself made two phone calls to set up his backyard fueling station, one to a distributer of the pump and trolley for the oil drum and another to a distributor who sells the oil in bulk.

It costs him anywhere between $2.50 and $3.50 a gallon to buy the biodiesel, or roughly 10 cents more than the price of diesel fuel. Truckers who buy in bulk, however, pay between a cent below or above the price of diesel. But Tickell gets roughly 45 miles per gallon, and a full tank in his car usually lasts for about 500 miles of driving around Los Angeles. He fuels up once or twice every two months.

He argues that biodiesel is one of many investments in alternative fuels that Americans should be making to offset reliance on petroleum. After all, our reliance on oil keeps rising as our access to it keeps falling. The largest source of oil is in the Persian Gulf area, and as Tickell puts it, "if Iraq grew broccoli and Afghanistan grew sweet peas, do you really think we'd be there?"

"In the best case scenario, in the next 20 years, biodiesel could take care of 25 percent of our diesel needs," he said.