In 2005 I got a job working as a “batcher” making biodiesel in a factory whose vegetable oil feedstock was shipped in via railroad tanker cars. I spent a lot of time measuring out the catalyst Sodium Hydroxide in zip lock bags, sweating and getting burns despite the Tyvek suit, face-mask, respirator and gloves. I also spent lots of time cleaning. This particular operation was financed by people who were trying to run the factory as a tech-start up, instead of what it was supposed to be ideally: A sustainable fuel manufacturer. There was one step in the process that was quite puzzling. They were adding a white powder, Magnusol – an industrial degreaser, to help separate the glycerin from the biodiesel. The problem became apparent some weeks after this practice started. A local biodiesel retailer and expert mechanic, Dr. D., had begun to see a white gunk in many of his clients cylinders. The Magnusol was not falling out of solution effectively and was ending up clogging people’s engines causing thousands of dollars of damage. The management and owners were in denial about their role in ruining engines and did their best to cover their asses and avoid liability. At one point I visited Dr. D. and had a long conversation about what I was seeing. My employers were not about sustainability and producing the most low-carbon fuel possible with the most ecologically sound practices. They were only about making money, about exploiting people’s desire for an ecologically sound alternative to fossil fuel. I told Dr. D. about the Magnusol and how they were trying to run to process faster and faster without a ‘real’ scientist to make accurate predictions regarding what ended up in the fuel. So instead of getting rid of the Magnusol the plant purchased a massive filtering system which removed the Magnusol after processing and I spent a lot of time cleaning the filters, another loathesome duty. It wasn’t much longer before my time in this factory ended. There was just nothing for it, I clearly had ideals and principals that conflicted with the greed and mismanagement of my, perhaps, well meaning but ultimately flawed employers. Sometime after I left, the company changed their name and moved to a new plant out on the coast and there they began importing palm oil from Indonesia. It seems their corruption only deepened in the name of profit over all else.
My interest and enthusiasm for Biodiesel was spawned primarily by the wars for oil that the U.S. has been waging for the past decades. I am still running my 2004 Volkswagen on Biodiesel from Dr. D. It is a challenging industry, but I still whole heartedly support sustainable biodiesel and those amazing people who are able, despite the greed and corruption, to grow, produce, sell and maintain the most ecologically sound domestic fuel.
Here are some links if you are interested in helping overcome the addiction to fossil fuels through sustainable biodiesel.
On the topic of fuel there is one more big problem that I would like to mention. Many people do not realize that most private small aircraft still run on leaded fuel, called “AvGas”. Municipal and small scale airfields that cater to these planes do not have the infrastructure to fuel aircraft with unleaded fuel. The engines are also not designed to work with unleaded fuels so there really hasn’t been much change in these problems. The truth is that there is no safe amount of lead in the human organism. Every atom of lead in the body does damage. We learned this a long time ago and got rid of lead in automobiles but the issue of small planes still using avgas has flown beneath the radar. The people mostly affected by this are young children who live near municipal or private airfields, not a very powerful voting block. Their more rapidly developing nervous systems are more susceptible than in adults. Those affected, living in the areas which experience the highest concentration of aerosolized lead from small planes, tend to be in the lower income bracket and people of color. This is truly a travesty and a hidden shame of the aviation industry.