Like many newly degreed college grads, Joshua Tickell spent some time indulging his wanderlust. The Louisiana native spent two years wearing out the rubber on a Renault motor home, racking up 25,000 miles on the vehicle powered by a four-cylinder turbo diesel engine – and run on fuel he manufactured himself.

The Veggie Van, as the vehicle was christened, was Tickell’s personal experiment on the potential of biodiesel, a fuel that can be made from vegetable oil and run on most existing diesel engines, as a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

Tickell was first exposed to the alternative fuel while studying abroad in Germany. “When I saw biodiesel the driving question was, ‘Is this feasible?’” says Tickell. “I thought that [driving across the country in the Veggie Van] would be the ultimate test. It succeeded in convincing me beyond my expectations.”

So much so that Tickell has become an expert on the topic, having penned two books on the fuel, one of which will be released in early 2006, founding the non-profit Veggie Van Organization (veggievan.org) and traveling all over the world in an effort to convince people of the potential biodiesel holds. “For me it was such a radical shift in the way I thought about energy, and the way energy is consumed,” he says.

During the Veggie Van’s journey, Tickell would periodically stop at fast-food joints to load up on waste cooking oil, which he filtered and processed using a contraption he built himself, yielding whatever gallons of biodiesel were necessary to get him to the next stop. But the green fuel can be created from many different kinds of vegetable seed oils, such as soy and canola, and chemically processed with ease.

The benefits of biodiesel are numerous – the raw ingredients of the fuel are easily produced domestically, eliminating U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and there is a significant (sometimes complete) reduction in the amount of greenhouse gasses and toxic byproducts produced by burning petroleum diesel. Existing diesel engines can be powered by biodiesel, in most cases with no modifications. Many European nations (in which diesel-powered passenger vehicles have been more strongly embraced) already offer various blends of petroleum diesel and biodiesel, which has also been found to lubricate engines better and make them run more smoothly and quieter.

The biggest problem for biodiesel thus far has been its cost, but with the price of oil closing in on $70 per barrel, even that hindrance is now disappearing. In a report published by the Department of Energy in March of this year, the price of B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel, averaged $2.30 per gallon among those retailers who voluntarily reported their prices.

Marty Borruso, a co-founder and vice president of the Brooklyn-based Eastern Biofuels, has recently been fielding calls from many consumers interested in converting to biodiesel. “We’ve been getting a lot of people with an environmental interest, but it’s hard to service them,” says Borruso, whose company processes raw virgin soybean oil, bought from domestic farms, into biodiesel at a plant in Newark, New Jersey. The pure biodiesel, called B100, is then sold to distributors who blend it at varying percentages with petroleum diesel, or sell it as is. Federal tax laws require fuel retailers to collect taxes on their sales, and the requirement is enough additional work to dissuade Eastern Biofuels from selling directly to consumers. “We can’t fill up cars,” says Borruso.

But it seems that interest in the distribution and sale of biodiesel is growing. According to data collected by the National Biodiesel Board, there are currently 45 plants in the U.S. actively producing biodiesel, with an additional 54 facilities in the process of onstructing or permitting new facilities, or raising money for the construction of such plants. Because the existing billions of dollars worth of infrastructure used to transport, store and pump petroleum diesel can also be used for biodiesel, enterprising entrepreneurs have no doubt realized the potential economic windfall to be had by getting into biodiesel.

So why aren’t we all riding on busses fueled by french fry fat? Both Borruso and Tickell see the federal government’s role, or lack thereof, in energy policy as the largest obstacle to the embrace of biodiesel by an American public. The U.S. government spends tens of billions of dollars each year securing, protecting and subsidizing foreign oil, but biodiesel has yet to see such largesse. “Nobody [in the federal government] is investing substantial sums of money into alternative forms of energy,” says Tickell. “There is no way for a non-subsidized industry to compete with the oil industry.”

However, some smaller green-minded governments have taken their own steps to hasten the introduction of biodiesel. The Minnesota state government recently required almost all diesel fuel sold in the state to contain at least two percent biodiesel in an effort to “introduce a new renewable home grown fuel as an alternative to imported oil,” according to the government’s website.

Tickell thinks phasing in a requirement of five percent biodiesel in all diesel fuel would be a good starting point for the federal government. “The disconnect is that it’s one thing to talk and it’s another thing to do,” he says. “Every other country is doing it; why aren’t we?”

Runnin’ On Plenty

Domestically produced vegetable oils, such as those from the seeds of soy, sunflower or canola plants serve as the raw material for biodiesel. Waste oil from restaurants can also be used.

Through a chemical process called transesterification, an element of the oil called glycerin is separated out.

During transesterification the oil is treated with an alcohol that has been mixed with a catalyst (e.g., methanol and potassium hydroxide).

The resulting biodiesel is light yellow in appearance, degrades as quickly as sugar does in the environment and is less toxic than table salt. Glycerin produced during the process an be sold for use in soaps and other products and the alcohol/catalyst mixture can be captured and reused.

Source: National Biodiesel Board