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Fuelling around 

Environmental groups host a fuel conversion workshop for diesel cars. Megan Wennberg drives through.

“People need to see it to believe it,” says Myriam Hammami. With her new veggie-fuelled car, Hammami will stoke the flames of belief wherever she goes.

Hammami is the education coordinator for the Atlantic Canada chapter of the Sierra Club, and her job takes her to schools all over the Maritimes. Hammami drives an average of 500 kilometres per week, but as of last Saturday, the environmental toll of her travels will be reduced.

Hammami’s 1992 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Diesel was converted to run on vegetable oil as part of a Biofuel Basics workshop presented by the maritime biodiesel co-op, the Ecology Action Centre and the Sierra Club of Canada. The workshop took place in the gravel parking lot across from the Halifax North Memorial Public Library on November 26, and was divided into two sessions: the morning was spent learning how to make biodiesel, the afternoon was devoted to converting Hammami’s diesel engine to run on vegetable oil.

Both biodiesel (a fuel created with an organic oil like vegetable, fish or peanut oil) and veggie oil are considered biofuels, and both can be used in diesel engines—and only diesel engines—in place of (or in combination with) regular diesel fuel. Biodiesel is poured directly into a vehicle’s gas tank, with no alterations necessary, while cars must undergo a mechanical conversion in order to run on vegetable oil (or straight fish or peanut oil). Biodiesel and vegetable oil are cleaner burning than diesel fuels, they don’t contain sulphur (a major cause of acid rain) and they are considered “carbon neutral,” because the carbon dioxide they produce is recycled back into the environment in a very short period of time and doesn’t result in a net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“You can imagine that a year before it was carbon dioxide in the air, until a plant through photosynthesis,” says Al Joseph, a member of the maritime biodiesel co-op. “Then when we harvest those plants to get the oil out of them, and we burn it, we’re just taking that carbon dioxide and putting it back in the atmosphere where it was only a year ago anyway.

“But the fossil fuels that all our transportation relies on take carbon sources that are millions of years old and hundreds of metres down in the Earth, and by burning that we add carbon dioxide .”

An excess of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causes global warming, which opens a Pandora’s Box of destructive consequences the world over. The Kyoto Protocol was created with the purpose of curbing the world’s exponentially increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and using biofuels (like biodiesel and vegetable oil) is one way for individuals to decrease their personal impact on the environment.

Biodiesel is relatively simple to make and can be used in any vehicle that takes diesel fuel. To make 10 litres of biodiesel you mix 40 grams of lye (a heavy duty cleaning agent) with two litres of methanol (a simple alcohol used in paint thinners), and add it to 10 litres of warm (bath temperature) vegetable oil (other oils can be used to create different varieties of biodiesel. Metro Transit buses run on B20, a mixture of 20 percent processed fish oil and 80 percent regular diesel fuel). Leave the mixture to react for eight hours, stirring frequently.

The reacted batch will divide into two layers, resembling oil and balsamic vinegar, with 10 litres of deep yellow biodiesel on top, and two litres of dark brown glycerin at the bottom. The two must then be separated (having a bucket with a drain at the bottom facilitates this process) and the biodiesel is then washed with water (by means of a fish tank pump) for three eight-hour washes. The fuel is then warmed to get rid of the excess water (it sinks to the bottom), and once clarified it’s ready to go in your car. And at roughly 35 cents a litre, it’s a lot cheaper than regular fuel.

“It’s kind of nice that when the price of fuel is going crazy you can go down into your basement or out into the shed and you can make something yourself to go into the car,” says Garth Murphy, senior, the eldest of 20 participants at Biofuel Basics and the proud owner of a 1983 Volkswagen. “It gives you a tiny little feeling of control over your world when big monster oil companies are more powerful than governments.”

Many of the participants at Biofuel Basics seemed to second Murphy’s sentiment, and three old Volkswagens and a BMW (Europe is the prime manufacturer of cars with diesel engines) with their hoods propped open were a visual testament to the growing number of drivers taking fuel prices into their own hands. Hammami soon joined the ranks of the converted, after mechanic Perry Everett completed a two-hour, $150 conversion to her car.

Poking around under the car’s aqua blue hood, Everett’s thick, grease covered fingers quickly made sense of the tangled mechanical anatomy of wires, pumps, tanks and machinery. After a number of careful cuts, insertions and relocations—including moving Hammami’s battery to the trunk (he then ran a remote power cable to the battery and grounded the battery to the frame of the trunk) to make room for a 10-litre veggie oil tank (the regular fuel tank stays in place) and severing the wire between the fuel filter and the engine to insert a three-way valve joining the veggie oil line, the diesel controlled line and the line into the injection pump—Hammami’s car was ready to go.

Unlike cars that run on biodiesel (which in Canada’s cool temperatures require a mixture of one part biodiesel to four parts diesel fuel in order to prevent the more viscose oil from gelling), Hammami starts her car using diesel fuel, lets it warm up, flips the valve over to veggie oil, and drives off. A few kilometres before reaching her final destination, Hammami flips the valve back over to diesel to flush the fuel injectors of vegetable oil.

Running on vegetable oil, Hammami’s car will get 23 kilometres per litre, compared to 25 kilometres per litre on diesel fuel, but her costs will plummet from $1.029 per litre for diesel fuel, to $0 for used vegetable oil procured from local restaurants near her home in Wolfville. “It can go straight from the fryers and into my car,” says Hammami, after being filtered through pantyhose or an old T-shirt to remove “all the fries and other gunk.”

“I’m really excited that I’ve got a veggie-fuelled car now. It’s going to be good.”



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