This winter, U.S. automakers have unveiled more environmentally friendly cars, SUVs, and trucks. They include gas-electric hybrids, even hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles. The new models will reduce smog and other emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But a cleaner domestic fuel already exists for diesel cars and trucks, and you can find it at most restaurants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein profiles a man who brews his own biodiesel from used vegetable oil:
This winter U.S. automakers have unveiled more environmentally friendly cars, SUVs, and
trucks. They include gas-electric hybrids, even hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. The new
models will reduce smog and other emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But a
cleaner domestic fuel already exists for diesel cars and trucks, and you can find it at most
restaurants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein profiles a man who brews
his own biodiesel from used vegetable oil:
Joe Rappa’s VolkSwagen Quantum looks like any older car. It’s a maroon station wagon with
180,000 miles on it. It’s got a diesel engine with the tell-tale diesel rattle.
But even though we’re inside an enclosed garage in an auto lab, there’s no black exhaust, no acrid
diesel smell. Instead, it smells like a kitchen.
“Some people say it smells like French Fries, some say it smells more like hamburgers on the
grill than anything else. But everyone smells something different with biodiesel.”
Rappa teaches automotive courses here at the State University of New York in Canton. He lives
120 miles away. Several times a week he commutes in this car powered by biodiesel – a fuel
made from used vegetable oil he collects from local restaurants. He says anyone with a diesel car
can do it themselves.
“It might be a bit unnerving at first because we’re so conditioned to put the same fuel in our car,
that y’know that you go make something in your garage and then go pour it in the tank of your
car goes against everything you’ve been ever taught for the last 20 years that you’ve been
Joe Rappa has a mischievous smile when he talks about brewing his own fuel, especially with
most people worrying about the price of gas, the places our oil comes from, and what it does to
politics and the environment. But Rappa insists he’s not an environmentalist.
“I don’t consider myself a big polluter, either. I’m a tinkerer. I always have to fool around with
something. It’s funny, my dad always used to kid me from the time I was a little kid, ‘You’re not
happy unless you’re screwing around with something.’ My bicycle worked fine, I’d take it apart.”
As an adult, he bought a diesel car. One day, he started reading about biodiesel on the Internet.
“And the more I looked at it, the more I thought, that’s kind of silly, but I bet I could do that, and
got a hold of the chemicals and started fooling around and making mini-batches, and once I was
confident the mini-batches were actually biodiesel and something I can burn in an engine, I
started making bigger batches and putting the stuff in my car.”
Today Rappa spends Sundays in his garage brewing up to 120 gallons of it at a time. He’s
considered a leading expert on biodiesel bulletin boards on the Internet.
Most of the enthusiasts he e-mails with are environmentalists. They see biodiesel as a way to
reduce our reliance on foreign oil and clean up the choking exhaust cars and trucks belch out their
tailpipes. Rappa says biodiesel creates less than half the smog-causing emissions of regular
“The particle emissions out of the tailpipe, 70% less simply by switching fuel, 70-80% less
hydrocarbon, 70-80% less carbon monoxide, those are some serious numbers.”
Nitrous oxide levels are a little higher, though. Those also contribute to smog. But for Rappa,
the big number is price. It costs him 54-cents a gallon to brew the stuff.
Rappa snaps on rubber gloves to show me how it’s done. Basically you mix methanol and lye to
make methoxide. Then you add the methoxide to the oil. The ratio depends on the amount of
animal fat in the vegetable oil, which you figure out through what’s called a titration, and the
amount of biodiesel you want to brew.
“Now we just add the methoxide to the vegetable oil.”
Rappa uses old Pepsi bottles for this demonstration and a wine carafe to hold the oil.
“Put our lid on there. Give it a shake. Immediately it turns to a milkshake consistency. And the
reaction only takes a couple seconds to take place. You mix it thoroughly and it’ll start to get
dark as my biodiesel starts to form.”
The result is honey-colored biodiesel. Glycerine – basically soap – settles on the bottom as a by-
product. Rappa cautions this takes practice. You have to boil the vegetable oil to remove any
water in it. You need to make sure you separate the biodiesel from the glycerine.
In fact, most people who use biodiesel in their cars buy it commercially. Their number is
growing. The National Biodiesel Board predicts biodiesel production will increase by 20 million
gallons this year. Most it is made from soybeans. Some producers use other vegetable oils. But
a U.S. Energy Department-funded study says there’s enough used vegetable oil and other waste
grease to produce 500 million gallons of biodiesel each year.
(sound up of driving)
That’s plenty to keep Joe Rappa’s car on the road and encourage others to join him.
“I still chuckle every time I pour in fuel I made in my garage in the tank of my car.”
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.