Vegetable Dreams: The Bio-Fuel Future in Riverwest

by Jackie Reid-Dettloff


When Kurt Bauer of Brady Street Futons makes his deliveries, he feels that he’s doing his part to contribute to the health of the earth. He believes that people should be less dependent on imported oil and so he runs his 2003 Dodge Sprinter with biodiesel fuel. He’s pleased that he gets 30 miles/gallon. “I don’t know why we didn’t do this all along,” he says. “My motor runs cleaner and smells better. It’s like this is the way it always should have been.”

When Booth Street homeowner Tony Berger sees the fuel gauge of his 2002 Volkswagen dipping towards E, he does not head to the gas station. Instead he heads to his own garage. The first thing he pours into his tank is five gallons of biodiesel fuel. Only in winter months does he go to the station to buy the petroleum-based diesel fuel available there.

Neither Kurt nor Tony saves much money by using biodiesel fuel. Depending on the season, they pay from $3.10 to $3.50 per gallon. But both of them claim that over the long run, biodiesel provides excellent lubrication for their engines, and that translates into long engine life. Kurt expects to get 300,000 miles on his van. Tony cites other long-term benefits of using plant-derived renewable fuel instead of petroleum-derived nonrenewable gasoline. He refers in particular to the economy and the environment.

There are crucial differences between petroleum-based fuel and biodiesel. Petroleum consists of the remains of vegetation that covered the earth some 300 million years ago. Fossilized plants were heated and compacted by geological forces until they became oil. Over the past 150 years, that oil has been extracted and refined to power our industrialized civilization.

Our whole economy, our whole way of life, is driven by petroleum-derived fuel. By its nature, this fuel is not renewable. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Once our country had seemingly unlimited supplies of petroleum, but now those reserves are nearly depleted and we are increasingly dependent on imports. This has huge consequences for our economy and our foreign policy. As far back as 1998, geologists writing in Science News predicted that “at some point between 2010 and 2025, all fuel from fossil oil will be too expensive for the average Western consumer to afford.”

Biodiesel fuel, on the other hand, is derived from living plants, crops that can be harvested every year. These include sunflowers, saffl owers, soybeans, corn, rapeseed (canola oil), and peanuts. Biodiesel advocates like Tony Berger argue that it makes a lot more sense to pay our own farmers to produce plant-derived fuel oil from this continent rather than drill and extract petroleum from countries on the other side of the globe.

Tony also believes that “burning fossil fuels contributes to higher levels of carbon dioxide and other gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. To stop the increase of these gases, we must first stop burning fossil fuels.”

Berger is also clear in pointing out that biodiesel alone is not going to solve all the energy and environmental woes of our planet. Principally that is because it can only be used for diesel engines, which account for only 1% of American passenger vehicles. The design of the diesel engine varies in significant ways from a gasoline internal combustion engine. It does not require spark plugs, for example, or a distributor. This means that in general diesel engines are more reliable than gasoline engines. Berger also claims that they get better mileage and require less maintenance.

The history of the diesel engine is a curious tale. Rudolf Diesel was a French born engineer who lived a century ago. When he introduced his invention in 1892, he astonished the world by announcing that his innovative design could “be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it.” But since Diesel’s time, the engine he designed to run on plant-derived fuel has been adapted to run on a petroleum product that is a lowgrade by-product of gasoline distillation. (See diagram.) Petroleum-based diesel fuel powers buses, trucks and trains around the world and pollutes the air wherever it’s used.

By contrast, biodiesel does not produce the same “dirty” carbon emissions as petroleum diesel. Furthermore, because a crop of oilproducing plants must absorb carbon dioxide in order to grow, renewable plant-derived fuels do not contribute to global warming. Any carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere as the fuel is burned is then absorbed by the crops that will yield the next harvest of fuel. This explains why biodiesel is the fuel of choice for vehicles in national parks like Yellowstone where air quality is a major concern.

Biodiesel fuel is distributed widely in Europe. Since gasoline isn’t subsidized by the government and is very expensive almost 50% of all European passenger vehicles have diesel engines. But since diesel cars have been far less popular with American consumers, there isn’t much of a distribution system for biodiesel fuel in this country. Tony Berger, for example, obtains his supply from a distributor in Sun Prairie. He, in turn, delivers to about 20 customers locally. A passionate advocate for switching away from petroleum fuels, Berger recommends a few books like From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank and Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy. His online address is (

Another Riverwester exploring the potential of biodiesel fuel is Debbie Davis. She considered herself lucky in 2004 when a freak collision with a slipped load of cement on the highway gave her the impetus to make the long-procrastinated switch from combustion to diesel. At $1,500 she was the high e-bay bidder on the cheapest diesel vehicle – much to her amusement, a Mercedes.

Through, Debbie networked and organized with other southeastern Wisconsin residents to sponsor a “homebrew” biodiesel workshop in the fall of 2004. The workshop in Racine converted a water heater into a mini-processing plant. Enthusiasts can make their own biodiesel with a mix of used vegetable oil, methanol and lye. The process is somewhat labor intensive, involving heat, agitation, and filtering. Producers are now filling their cars with homebrew at approximately $1 a gallon.

The third way to run on biodiesel is through installing an S.V.O. (straight vegetable oil) system. This involves installation of a second fuel tank with heated fuel lines, allowing the motorists to switch from commercial biodiesel or fossil diesel once the car heats up. S.V.O. kits run from $800 to $1,600 and are available through, greasel. com or

This is the next step for Debbie Davis. She is most interested in a new S.V.O. design being developed by innovator Rick Martin in Waukesha.

Another promising resource in Riverwest is mechanic Jake Henes at Riverwest Automotive Service, 801 E. Keefe. Jake will be specializing in installation of S.V.O. systems. Check his soonto- be-updated website, www., for available cars and services, as well as a forum that can connect local enthusiasts.

So who says there’s nothing new under the sun? If Kurt Bauer or Tony Berger or Debbie Davis have their way, we might in the near future be able to store or even produce fuel in our own backyards. We might have the smell of French fries or peanuts wafting from exhaust pipes instead of the smell of gasoline. One thing about living in this neighborhood is that you just never know what you’ll find next.

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2006