USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
SOLAR ENERGY INSTITUTE BIODIESEL COURSE
So, what's a Biodiesel course? And what am I doing on it?
Well, it isn't common knowledge, but a diesel engine will run on anything that has a reasonable calorific value. In fact the first diesel engine ran on peanut oil, and early diesels have been run on all kinds of bizarre "fuels", even coal dust. It just so happens that in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s "fossil fuel" diesel was very convenient and easy to obtain, so diesel engines were "improved" to run on it.
However it's not very environmentally-friendly due to the emissions of soot, (like the one just here on the left) but it does have an advantage in that it's more efficient than an equivalent petrol engine, so you use less fossil fuel to travel a given distance (maybe as much as 50% less!). So my aim is to keep the diesel engine, but to find a more environmentally-friendly fuel to power it.
If you've been following my website over the past two or three years since it's been up, you'll have seen that I've been running diesel engined vehicles on a mixture of pump diesel and new vegetable oil - varying the percentages depending on the weather (hot summer, 25% pump diesel and 75% vegetable oil; winter 95% pump diesel and 5% vegetable oil; and varying mixtures inbetween). I've noticed an improvement in power of about 10% and a marginal improvement in fuel economy with the "summer mixture", but more difficult starting - you need a bigger battery, heavy-duty starter and increased heating time to the glowplugs.
However I'm now at the limit of what I'm technically capable of doing, but it hasn't stopped me thinking. Thinking about
"hey, aren't I building things like this every day of the week anyway?"
then believe me, I was on the next plane.
Especially when I learnt that one of the speakers was Joshua Tickell, a man who's become famous throughout the world for doing this sort of thing over a period of many years.
The couse was organised by the Solar Energy Institute and took place at Guidestone Farm which is situated near Loveland in Northern Colorado, USA. This was certanly one of the nicest venues I could imagine for a course. Beautiful scenery, friendly people, a "laid-back" atmosphere, and motivated students. Not to mention some really dedicated tutors, and a film crew too!
I sensed we were all going to have a ball. I mean, this is the view you get when you pull up in the car park. This HAS to be the right kind of place to come to, doesn't it?
So, I arrived early on the Monday morning before anything at all was set to start up. So it gave me an opportunity to have a good wander around and to size up the place.
On the left you can see a couple of yurts. The green one was being used as a residence for some of the workers here, and the white one was to be our classroom. All this little complex was powered by 6x75 watt solar panels (You can see them on the pole in centre-shot) and controlled by equipment in the wooden hut, which also housed the batteries.
I then went for a walk down to the end of the market garden, to get a shot of some of the outbuildings and (of course) the crops that were being grown here. The building just to left of centre is an enormous plastic greenhouse, and it was full of tomatoes. The smell was absolutely wonderful. Made my tomato-growing attempts look rather pathetic.
In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived back home was to buy a large greenhouse for the farm and crack on with my rainwater project, as you can see.
In fact, every year since, I've been an avid tomato grower thanks to the experience I gained over here - even when I've been stranded in my apartment in Brussels and with nowhere but a balcony to produce them.
The yurt village was also powered by a wind turbine which is situated on a pole in the trees shown in the photograph on the left. If I hadn't dictated over my notes in error I'd tell you what wind turbine it was (d-oh!) but memory seems to think it's an AH403.
Unfortunately the resolution of the photograph means that you can't see it clearly enough.
The photograph on the right also shows a wind turbine, but this belongs to a neighbour. Both turbines are though in my opinion set too low to be 100% efficient and are bound to be affected by turbulence, but I reckon they'll be only for backup purposes, relying on solar energy to give most of the power.
It was round about this moment that Josh showed up.
Having read much of his work, I expected him to turn up in a veggie van or something pretty bizarre, but cetainly not in a Z1! Didn't know you could buy a diesel-powered one of these!
Well, you can't, but there was absolutely no mistaking the smell from the exhaust!
Of course, what engine you put inside your vehicle depends on the skill and competence of your mechanic - after all didn't many people tell Paul and me that you can't fit a Maestro engine in a LDV (ho ho)? Yet it certainly didn't stop us.
So, what do you see when you lift up the bonnet but a beastly great Nissan 6-cylinder truck engine. Well, it says "Nissan" on the car, so why not?
The only major (believe me, there was plenty of "minor") work was having to cut, reshape and reweld an engine mounting, as you can see if you enlarge (by clicking on it) the photo on the left (don't forget to click on the "back" button on your browser to come back afterwards!). And I have to be honest and say that the quality and standard of the engineering work was absolutely superb.
Stand up and take a bow, Bill.
You did well, grasshopper!
This gave me an evil thought - I've been toying with the idea of going "Classic Car" rallying back home and I've an old Ford 2000E saloon sitting in a garage waiting to be restored. I've also got a Sierra 2300 diesel engine and 5-speed box too that I bought off eBay - Now there's an idea!
But I digress!
So you've seen the schoolroom - the yurt in the first photograph. This is the laboratory - a wooden open-fronted shed, with a good selection of students loitering around outside waiting for things to happen.
Many students were realtively local and some came from other parts of the USA. I wasn't the only European as there was a guy from Scotland and another from Germany, but the overall prize went to a guy who'd come over specifically from Guam (miles out in the Pacific for those of you who have forgotten your school geography lessons) for the course! Now that's commitment!
So now the classroom work has finished, the practical work begins. What I'm doing here is making a trial mix of a sample of the cooking oil we're going to refine. The idea is to take 5 standard measures of your oil, and mix it with different amounts of reagent to see which mixture gives you the most satisfactory results.
You can see that I'm wearing a long-sleeved shirt (me in a long-sleeved shirt?), rubber gloves, a gasmask and goggles. The chemicals used in this process are really nasty to mess about with and if you get it on your skin you'll know about it. You CAN'T take too many precautions when you're working with this stuff.
But everyone in our little group of 5 survived to tell the tale, as you can see (I didn't tell you that we started out as a group of 27 though!) and you can see our test batches in front of us.
If you look closely at the 5 test batches you can see the difference in clarity, and the amount of glycerides that have precipitated out. This glycerine is what you find stuck all round your chip pan and what gums up your injectors and combustion cylinders. Now you see why you have to get it out of your fuel.
Don't forget we're talking about this much glycerine out of maybe 200ml of oil - enough to drive maybe 2 miles! Imagine what your combustion chambers are going to be like after driving 2000 miles!!
So, the short straw having been duly drawn, the main batch mixture gets under way! This was an unnerving task that's for sure.
Now not that I'm one to criticise
"Perish the thought, Eric!"
but look at this photo
There's a 45-gallon drum here on metal legs stood up on four breeze blocks, and someone standing on a footstool to pour the highly-corrosive reagent into it. And he can't see what he's doing either! You wouldn't have got me doing it, that's for sure! Do they have "Health and Safety in the Workplace" legislation in the USA, or is that what Hispanic illegal immigrants are for?
No surprises that the guy pouring in the mixture isn't an American, - he's a Scot!
So our batch having been duly left to agitate itself for the required time period, first task is to pour off the glycerine that has sunk to the bottom of the reacting tank.
It helps immensely if you have welded a conical bottom onto your tank and fitted it with a large plumbing valve, so it all neatly slurps out. Then you can distill it to get out the remains of the reagent, and then make your own soap with the neat glycerine, or compost it if you've used a potassium instead of a sodium base.
Once the glycerine is out of the way, then you get your neat fuel and off you go!
Here on the left you can see some used cooking oil that's been collected from a local restaurant
Yes, you can use used cooking oil too! Now doesn't that open up all kinds of possibilities! Now used cooking oil has to be landfilled and what with landfill sites filling up, it costs a fortune to dump it and people have to pay for it to be taken away. So converting waste into want! What an excellent idea. I'm all for this!
An unfortunate side-effect of this though is that you can get a very good idea of the quality of the food you're eating in the restaurant when you go round the back to collect the waste cooking oil.
Of course, you need to filter the waste oil to remove the bits of burnt chips
"No, chips! I'm from Europe, remember!"
and anything else that's floating around in the waste oil, as you can see here. You can't see the stages where it was passed through some stainless steel mesh to remove the big bits though.
So, having got the chemistry out of the way, what happened next?
"Frog went home"
Noooooooo - that's something else.
In fact, we came to the interesting bit. Some of us - the coalition of the willing - were going to build our own reactor. It goes without saying that yours truly was first in the queue.
After all, I don't normally need too many excuses to get my hands on a welding torch and a pair of tinsnips!
Or even a bit of old washing machine, as you see on the photo on the left.
But it seemed that my reputation had preceded me across the Atlantic, and they didn't let me anywhere near a welding set or a pair of tinsnips. Bill did all the work.
"Here is one I made earlier".
Yes, I've even made Americans aware of "Blue Peter" now!
"Yes, Blue Peter".
So here it is, a fully-assembled reactor drum. If you look at the photo just heret you can make out a shield attached to the side of the drum - this is to hide the electric washing-machine motor that turns the paddles, to shield it from the splashes of oil and any potential combustion from the sparks.
You should also notice the paddle blades that are fitted you might think upside-down. This is because if you fitted them the right way up, they'd force the liquid to rise when you mix it, and this would splash it everywhere, all over the operator and the workshop. Fitting them upside-down means it pushes the liquid down (thus keeping it it the container) and then back up the sides, which makes a much better mix.
That's why it's advantageous to have a ribbed container. This creates turbulence and makes an even-better mix.
If you look carefully into the drum you'll see it even has some oil in it.
But electric motors and combustible motor fuel, shields notwithstanding? Hmmm! Speaking as someone who can start a fight in an empty room, I'm going to go for the air-driven option and anything that is likely to create a spark to ignite 45 gallons of volatile fuel, well - I'll keep it well away from here.
One thing it's very important to mention is that the legality (or otherwise) of running a road-going vehicle on the fuel you've just produced is ... er ... open to different sorts on interpretation depending on which side of the line you're standing on, and what you're intending to do with the fuel when you've made it. So nothing I've written should be interpreted as encouraging or inciting anyone to use this fuel to power a road-going vehicle until they are quite satisfied as to the legal position.
So why did this course interest me then? Well, simple really. I live off the grid miles from anywhere in the mountains of Central France. First thing I did when I got home was to spend £300 ($450) on eBay to buy a 4.4Kw diesel generator. Now my whole lifestyle has just improved itself in one enormous leap and bound. And wasn't it worth while!
So, what did I think of the course?
I think it's the best thing I've ever done in my life!
I met some nice, interesting friendly people who went a long way to changing my ideas of Americans in general and made me realise that there are some who don't conform to the typical stereotype idea that we Europeans know, and that those people are very, very nice to know. I'm really glad that I met them.
It made me realise too that we in Europe are so far behind in our ideas on environment. All these people here being involved in the environment, alternative energy, non-polluting alternatives and so on. And it all seemed so natural too. Something that would never ever happen in Europe.
I mean, I've been doing this here in Europe for 5 years and I've often felt completely isolated and alone, with even my friends urging me to "consider my unusual lifestyle" and "return to the fold". It's really nice to come here and meet all these others who think like me.
The course itself was great, well-taught, well-structured, and well-worth the money. It's not $500 (plus the airfare) for one week, its $500 (plus the airfare) for the rest of my life, and that's what makes it so worthwhile in my opinion.
And would I recommend the course to anyone else? Well, I would recommend ANY of their courses without hesitation to anyone who wants to turn their theoretical ideas and fancies into a practical and feasible project. I'll be going back (teaching, I hope!)
I went back to Europe bursting with ideas and projects that had fired me up - from the course, from the SEI, from the farm, from "Sunny John", from anywhere. Such a pity that Europe is so oppressive to any sort of motivation and enthusiasm. Mine didn't last long.
Can I come back? If the opportunity were ever to arise, I could be seriously interested in spending my summer down here on the farm. I have a great deal that I can contribute, what with all of my experience in organic gardening, my solar panels and my wind turbine, and I'm sure I could learn such a lot.
Now that the course was over, what I had to do now was return to my campsite to collect my things. I was going on a little holiday, and I was going to do it in style.