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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Student Cooks Up Cheap Fuel Option

By Chris Young of GateHouse News Service

JACKSONVILLE - With the price of gas hovering around $3 a gallon, the aroma of burnt doughnuts coming from the tailpipe of Jason Miles' Volkswagen Jetta smells especially sweet. That's because Miles, a student in the environmental biology department at Illinois College in Jacksonville , has been making his own bio-diesel fuel from waste cooking oil for less than $1 per gallon.

Miles did a research paper on the subject, and, with the encouragement of professor Deborah Beal and financial support from his parents, Rick and Diane Miles of Springfield , he researched and purchased the equipment needed to make bio-diesel.

The basic processing and filtering equipment cost about $3,500, said Miles. Miles makes bio-diesel in the garage of his home just off campus in Jacksonville. Since it is not kept on campus, the project was not eligible for college funds.

To make fuel, the portion of waste oil that can be cleanly burned must be separated from the cooking oil, much like vinegar and oil salad dressing separates after sitting on the shelf. But the separation doesn't take place without help. It takes a couple of chemical reactions to make it happen. One is fairly straightforward, but the other must be calculated each time depending on how often the cooking oil was used. The oil is heated and then mixed with chemicals. A pump circulates the chemicals and oil for an hour, and the mixture is allowed to sit for 24 hours.

The chemicals work a little like the human digestive system, breaking down molecular bonds so the carbon-based molecules can separate into distinct layers. Miles drains off the bottom layer, called glycerin, and adds it to his compost pile. (Glycerin also has applications as an ingredient in natural soaps, a potential sideline market.) The top layer is pumped directly into the gas tank.

At first Miles asked local restaurants for their waste oil. Only the local Burger King would cooperate. Miles always framed the conversation as a request for a donation of used oil. Once school resumed in the fall, Miles found a steady source of cooking oil from Chartwells, the company that provides food service on the Illinois College campus.

He can get about 20 gallons a week but uses only about half that much. Miles said he likes using bio-diesel because the used oil doesn't go to waste. Also, he says bio-diesel is renewable, unlike fossil fuels, which must be extracted from the ground and cannot be replaced.

Running on bio-diesel, rather than conventional diesel fuel, Mile's Jetta gets slightly reduced gas mileage. He gets 40 to 45 miles per gallon on the highway, versus the usual 50 mpg. Other perceived drawbacks are not always true, he said. Bio-diesel works fine in cold weather with an additive, and he says it actually helps clean the engine. He says the engine runs quieter on his fuel, with the typical knocking sound of a diesel engine being muffled considerably. However, bio-diesel can dissolve rubber gaskets and fuel lines on older cars. The use of homemade fuels also can invalidate a car's warranty, so most home fuel producers use older models, like the Jetta, that are no longer under warranty.

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