Omaha Co-op Turns Leftover Cooking Oil Into Usable Fuel

 
Omaha Co-op Turns Leftover Cooking Oil Into Usable Fuel

Pat Rupp runs the fish fries at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Gretna, and found himself with a 300-gallon problem.

The church puts on six fish fries a year, a major fundraising effort. Rupp, a Knights of Columbus volunteer, said he and his kitchen crew often serve 1,000 people per event.

The fried goodies come with a byproduct: used cooking oil. About 50 gallons of it per event. Rupp has tried holding tanks and haul-away services (smelly), and even had someone advise him to barrel it up himself and haul it up the road to a busy restaurant for recycling (time-consuming).

Just in time for this year's Lenten season, a savior appeared: the Omaha Biofuels Cooperative, which is collecting used cooking oil from many area churches. The group places collection barrels out back free of charge and picks up the used oil the next day.

"They took a big-time problem off my hands," Rupp tells the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/1BUdEue ).

And what happens next is the cool part: Co-op members make motor fuel out of the used cooking oil. The co-op has a production facility in an industrial park in South Omaha, where the used oil is cleaned up and made suitable for use in powering the motor vehicles owned by the co-op members. Any diesel car or truck made after 1996 can use the fuel without modification, the group says.

Along with churches, Omaha Biofuels has secured agreements with many area restaurants to collect their used vegetable oil. Partners include Dario's Brasserie, the Grey Plume and Culprit Cafe and Bakery.

The oil has a small resale value that the restaurants are forgoing, but it doesn't amount to much, co-op co-founder and president Eric Williams said. He said the restaurants seem to be happy to contribute to small-scale, local renewable fuel production; co-op members also patronize the restaurants, he said.

In addition, the co-op supplies recycled vegetable oil to the passenger train at the Henry Doorly Zoo. It runs on a blend of vegetable oil and petroleum fuel.

The zoo's biodiesel comes from concession stand fryers, according to ZooPrints, the zoo's in-house magazine.

"Any remaining oil sludge is recycled," ZooPrints said. The benefits of turning waste cooking oil into fuel extend well beyond cost savings by preventing harmful liquid waste from contaminating groundwater supplies." Omaha Biofuels converts the waste oil into biodiesel for the train.

The Omaha Biofuels Cooperative operates in a hands-on manner. It is a nonprofit, and there is no fuel for sale. Rather, if you want it, you have to pitch in and work for it, helping with collection or converting the used oil into fuel.

Williams said the co-op has 150 people on its mailing list, but only about a dozen active members. A big draw for some is a craftsman-like pride in creating their own vehicle fuel.

"I have always been into do-it-yourself fuels," co-op member Mike Kros said. "It just feels good to know you are yourself producing what goes into your own fuel tank."

Kros said the fuel the co-op creates is less polluting and results in far less engine wear than traditional diesel. But Kros doesn't have anything against petroleum and, like other co-op members, realizes the world can't be run on leftover french fry oil.

"But it does make sense to conserve what we have," said Kros, an Omaha architect who was also in on the group's founding.

The co-op was started in 2008 after Williams and twin brother Scott joined online forums where Volkswagen vehicle owners congregate. Personal fuel production is a popular hobby among some Volkswagen diesel engine enthusiasts, and the Williams brothers got involved. At the same time, they were becoming aware of Nebraska's growing production of corn ethanol, another renewable fuel.

"I hadn't previously realized that Nebraska was in the center of the emerging biofuels production movement, and that biofuels can be made on a small scale," said Eric Williams, a civil engineer who works for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District planning bicycle and pedestrian trails and urban stormwater projects.

Soon after, about 10 people joined the group. Everyone contributed a few dollars to get the equipment, and a producer/consumer fuel license was obtained from the Nebraska Department of Revenue.

"That means that members of the co-op work together to produce fuel and are entitled to use that fuel in their vehicles," Williams said.

Getting used cooking oil into shape for motor vehicles involves filtering out particles and heating the oil to remove water, burned oil and heavy waxes. A key part is called "transesterification," a process that rearranges the fat molecules in the oil. It's all done in steel vats that employ heat and chemical reactions to get the job done.

The finished fuel contains no sulfur and burns clean, with lower particle emissions than traditional fuels, said Scott Williams, who works as an academic adviser for the NorthStar Foundation, a nonprofit after-school program.

The biodiesel produced from waste vegetable oil has the exact same energy content as petroleum diesel, he said.

"People now want to be more involved with what is going on in their lives," Scott Williams said. "We think this ties in very closely with the local food movement, the microbrews and all of that sort of thing that gets people participating in what they eat, drink and put in their vehicles."

The Williams twins said no one in the group has any delusions about how much biodiesel from used cooking oil can contribute to the world's energy demand. As it is, the co-op is produced a couple of thousand gallons last year and is aiming for about 15,000 gallons this year.

Through July 2014, the last period for which U.S. Energy Information Administration figures are available, 678 million gallons of biodiesel from all sources were produced nationally. U.S. oil producers belt out more than that every two days.

But, the co-op members say, small-batch, local, cooperative fuel-making is catching on and paving the way for new thinking. Soybeans, they said, make a fine motor fuel. Algae is an even better alternative, they said, as it avoids the "food versus fuel" debate that erupts when crops are used.

There are some large algae farms in New Mexico, and Omaha-based ethanol producer Green Plains Inc. is the majority owner of a five-acre algae farm at its plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, where it is exploring the potential for feed, food and fuel. If things work out as hoped, Green Plains would expand the operation to "possibly as large as 200 to 400 acres," according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There are some longstanding case studies out there on biofuels. Since 1997, the school district in Medford Township, New Jersey, has been running school buses on biodiesel made from soybeans. And about 150 grassroots organizations around the country are producing some amount of locally generated biodiesel, according to the Collective Biofuels Conference, which organizes an annual convention

"It can be done," Eric Williams said. "We got off the ground for about $1,000. And a lot of hours of hard work."

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