Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Testing the Biodiesel Bandwagon

With American gasoline price surpasses $3 per gallon and continuing, many other alternative fuel sources are gaining public’s interest. One of them is biodiesel. Unlike the regular diesel (or Petrodiesel) which are extracted from fossil fuel, biodiesel is derived from vegetable oil and sometimes animal fat.

After reading several articles in various scientific magazines about biodiesel, and even SpikeTV’s show Trucks has featured about it, I have decided to find out for myself if it is worth the effort to jump onto the biodiesel bandwagon. Keep in mind that I understand all the environmental benefits biodiesel has compare to regular petroleum based diesel. My analysis is purely from an economical point of view.

To start a home based biodiesel refinery, first I need the ingredients of vegetable oil, lye, and methanol. Many biodiesel enthusiasts’ websites suggest contacting local restaurants for their used oil, but what if they don’t want to give the liquid gold to you? That is why I have a Costco card. The cheapest oil I found was Kirkland Signature soybean oil by Cargill at $14.37 for 35lb (approximately 4.5 gallon). Don’t forget the cost of lye and methanol.

The manufactured biodiesel brewing kit sells for somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000. On the Trucks show, Stacey David featured a kit that only cost $850. Of course the cost can be cut down to 1/2 if I can buy the basic components separately and assemble them myself. Biodiesel supporters claim after spending the initial investment of several hundred of dollars on the kit, the actual cost of biodiesel is about as low as $0.50 per gallon. One thing they forgot to mention is that they assumed used vegetable oil would be free, and the $0.50 only covers lye and methanol cost.

Here is a simple example:

Kit = $400 (I would buy all the components separately and assemble them myself)
Vegetable Oil = $3.46 per gallon (I had to buy vegetable oil from Costco$14.37 for 4.5 gallon with 8.2% sales tax)
Chemicals = $0.50 per gallon (lye and methanol)

In order to get my fuel cost down to the same price as petrodiesel ($2.847 as of Sept. 13, 2005) and recoup the initial investment, it would take

[$400+($3.46+$0.50)*x]/x = $2.847

Correction: Even if I got the vegetable oil for free, it would still take over 170 gallons. Assume I drive a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon, and I average about 12000 miles per year. 170 gallons of biodiesel would last me over three months before I actually experience the financial benefit.

In conclusion, biodiesel is a great idea as alternative fuel source. Unfortunately as of right now, there are too much initial investment involved and it takes too long for average consumer to receive the benefit. Companies with large trucking fleets with much greater fuel consumptions would benefit much more from biodiesel than anyone else.

Continue to Part II


  1. I saw that episode of Trucks too, and it sounded intruiging. I think it might be a better value if you had at least one other person willing to share the cost, so that instead of 7 months to recoup your initial investment, it was only, say 3.5 months. Of course, if gas keeps going up in price, you'd see your ROI much sooner :)

  2. Couple of observations regarding your blog:
    1) the average consumer isn't going to homebrew their own biodiesel
    2) in some locales, biodiesel can be purchased for LESS than petro-diesel (which is already less than unleaded gasoline)
    3) Biodiesel also improves engine life due to increased lubricity
    4) There are dramatically reduced emissions on a vehicle using biodiesel compared to petro-diesel or unleaded gas

    The biggest problem is that the majority of consumers in the US don't have a diesel vehicle (which typically gets 20-40%+ better gas mileage than a gasser). There has been a stigma against diesels in the US for passenger vehicles since the mid 70's.

  3. Actually, the west coast pays the most for diesel, more than gasoline, according to the government tracked averages:
    So they have the most to gain out of Biodiesel.

    There's definitely something to be said of sharing your initial investment across a few people, though. It also might be worth it to buy yourself something like a Jetta TDI. It's a Turbo Diesel which gets more than 45 mi/gal. It's a lousy 100hp engine, and only gets to 60mph in 12s, but we're talking economy, not auto-racing here. =D

  4. Marnie,

    In the show Trucks, the host (Stacey David) showed how to make a batch of biodiesel from used vegetable oil and mixing it with lye and methanol. What he did not mention was what he did with the black colored by-product of lye and used vegetable oil. Since the mixture does contain harmful chemical in it, I don't think any city would let you dump it down the drain.

  5. ie85,

    You are absolutely correct about the lack of diesel vehicles in the U.S.

    There are two reasons what there is a stigma against diesel engines:

    1. Diesel engines tend to be more noisy compare to gasoline engines. This is due to the compression stage in the diesel engine. Most consumers would rather have a quiet vehicle.

    2. Diesel exhaust gas came be seen as black colored, where gasoline exhaust is virtually invisiable. People tends to think black exhaust equals dirty and pollutant.

  6. tian,

    I understand the root cause of the stigma around diesel engines, but VW with their TDI engines has come along way. I was hoping to test drive a TDI myself today, but my closest VW dealership didn't have any in stock. VW sales have shot up in the US by 72% for the 1st 10 days of September due largely because of increased prices of petro gasoline.

    I haven't heard of any biodiesel powered cars producing these black colored emissions.

    Only time and education (and maybe $4/gal gas prices) will overcome the stigma around diesel cars in the USA. Time will tell, it always does.

  7. Just for clarity's sake and not for the sake of pointing out errors, you're math is a little off. Yes, the variable will equal 360, but it's a negative value. Think about it. You'll never be able to recoup your investment if raw vegetbal oil costs more than gasoline per gallon. It just further proves your point that it's only effective if you can get the fat free.

    - scazmatic at hotmail

  8. ie85,

    Engines use biodiesel do not produce the black exhaust as petrodiesel because the chemical compositions are different. The petrodiesel fuel contains high level of hydrocarbon which gives the exhaust its black color.

    I personally think biodiesel would be a good fuel source. Hopefully companies like Blue Sun ( would bring biodiesel to common households at a much lowered price than homebrewed.

  9. I blogged an article regarding biodiesel prices here in Denver ( Blue Sun is incidentally the company producing the biodiesel that is sold at that location in which I took the picture of.

    There are an ever increasing amount of biodiesel production plants being announced. I'll be blogging another plant announcement in Oklahoma today. There is still a lot of potential for the local homebrewer. Although as someone else mentioned, its much more economically viable when involved with a co-op that resources can be shared.

  10. I think you are in error on several points, some which favor the use of biodiesel and some which do not.

    First, with regard to Stacey David's "experiment," he used a product called the Fuelmeister, which costs $2995.00, not the $850 you guessed. It is capable of producing 40 gallons every two days. The "Plus" model costs $1000 more and can double the production capability by cutting the time in half.

    Second, with regard to the waste product, aside from the "sludge" filtered out (food particles, etc.), the bi-product is glycerin, which can be used to make soap, etc. Overall the waste is biodegradeable, not toxic, as you stated. While I wouldn't recommend simply dumping it, there is no major danger if one chose to do so (just as washing detergent, shampoo, dishwashing soap, etc. down the drain is accepted).

    Sharing the cost of purchase and production, even among a few people, would greatly decrease the time to recoup expenses and start saving money.

    There are several downsides, however. Someone has to be willing to collect and process the oil (free or not), and biodiesel won't tolerate cold winter temperatures without being treated to prevent gelling. That's why you commonly find it blended with petrodiesel.

    Still, if the conditions are right, it's definitely worthy of consideration. I own a Ford Excursion, which I bought both because the diesel engine gets better mileage than most MID-SIZED SUV's, and because there was the option to produce and use biodiesel.


  11. Planecrazy361,

    Did you finish reading Part II?

  12. In response to the lack of diesels in the us, according to the VW dealership near my house the government restricts the number of diesel vehicles a company can import each year due to the higher greenhouse gas emissions. Diesel does not burn as clean as gasoline as we all know from large diesel trucks. However, biodiesel burns much cleaner than petro, I have seen numbers of 70% less hydrocarbon emissions but a slight increase (up to 10%) in NOx emissions.

  13. Just thought I would let everyone know that we make biodiesel using our Freedom Fueler biodiesel kit for less than a dollar per gallon. Of course we get our oil from a local diner for free and the chemicals actually cost only 46 cents per gallon for us. We think this is the best biodiesel processor out there. We made a mini batch first, which turned into soap, but ever since then we have been making quality biodiesel and loving it.