Greased lightning

Powering the anti – fossil fuel revolution, one fried catfish at a time
By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 16, 2008


VIDEO: A biodiesel demonstration

Oil has been discovered in a Brighton backyard. And in a Somerville barbecue joint. And in a Chinese restaurant in JP. And in scores of other unlikely places throughout greater Boston. But before you head online to order your exceedingly expensive derrick, drill pipe, and dump bailer, you should know that these “discoveries” are more of the recycled and resourceful (rather than the geological) variety.

The fuel Bostonians are finding is biodiesel. Can’t afford the hefty price tag for a hybrid car, like a Prius? For a mere $5000 or so you could snag a used Mercedes and outfit it to run on waste vegetable oil and biodiesel fuel.

Above and beyond this low-tech ingenuity, many Boston fuel and utility companies are also beginning to embrace biodiesel. Suddenly, it’s becoming big business.

And it’s only taken a century for it to happen.

When Rudolf Diesel conceived of his compression-ignition engine in the 1890s, he wasn’t thinking about drums of viscous black crude or sooty, sulfurous exhaust. He was dreaming of agrarian self-sufficiency, of the small farmer able to grow his own fuel. He was thinking of an engine that could run on vegetable oil.

By the 1920s, however, the mighty petroleum industry had stepped in. Its henchmen saw to it that diesel engines were altered to be better suited to fossil fuels. And that was that. “Diesel” would thenceforth connote a smelly, poorly refined, petro-based pollutant belching from semi-truck smokestacks.

Now, after a century of plundering the Earth for ever-depleting oil reserves, a few wars, and untold quantities of planet-killing pollution, suddenly everyone is thinking about green fuel. In Chelsea and Quincy and Western Massachusetts, businesses have grown up out of the grassroots. And they’re rolling in green as they fill barrels with diesel distilled from stuff grown in the ground.

The benefit of biodiesel — and the larger category of biofuel, which can also refer to ethanol-based fuels made from corn, wheat, or sugar cane, and burned in gasoline engines — is substantial. It’s sustainable and replenishable. Its emissions are cleaner. It can be locally procured, and isn’t controlled by shady Middle Eastern despots. It’s inexpensive. And it’s much easier than you think. Now, if it was only legal . . .

Food for thought
For the past three or four years, from the back door of his Davis Square barbecue restaurant, Redbones, Rob Gregory has been fueling the biodiesel revolution, one barrel at a time. “This was one of the first key places that was giving oil to the cause,” says Tom Schneider, an advertising consultant with a keen interest in biofuels, and a friend of Gregory’s.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I met at Redbones with Gregory, Schneider, and Dave Staunton from Green Grease Monkey, a Brighton-based group that both converts cars to run on used vegetable cooking oil — better known as your run-of-the-mill grease — and makes small batches of biodiesel from that grease.

“Biodiesel,” of course, is a refined fuel that can power unmodified diesel engines. It may be produced from many virgin sources (soybean, flax, sunflower, canola, palm, hemp) or from filtered-waste vegetable oil that’s been treated via an esterification process to make it lighter and cleaner burning.

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