Biodiesel Sub-Group Update

Last October I wrote about my meeting with a waste vegetable oil man in Beccles, and talked about the beginnings of Sustainable Bungay’s Biodiesel group. This is an update based on a December visit to a man who makes biodiesel at home and our own first attempts at a reaction last Saturday.

But first, why am I part of a Transition Biodiesel group, when I don’t even have a car at the moment? Well, for several reasons, not least the social benefits of being part of a community group that’s making something useful together. But equally, at a time when oil prices are soaring through the roof and with political instability in so many oil producing countries, plus the realities of Peak Oil, it just makes sense to engage in a project that focuses my mind and gets me thinking in a really practical way about these things.

And you can use biodiesel for other purposes – oil lamps for instance. (Though there are obvious drawbacks with used chip fat – unless you’re into things like scratch and sniff!).

Kris and Josiah pouring the oil on Saturday

(i) On a very cold December day Josiah, Kris and I took a trip down to Aldeburgh to see Colin, a retired chemical engineer who has been making biodiesel at home now for three or four years. Colin welcomed us with a mug of tea and showed us around his set up, explaining the process – from collecting waste vegetable oils from food outlets through cleaning the dirty vegetable oil, reacting the clean oil with  lye, separating the crude biodiesel and glycerol and washing the crude  biodiesel with water to produce the final vehicle-worthy product you can see in the photos.

Final Product - Colin's Biodiesel

Throughout the visit Colin answered our questions on everything from handling lye (the caustic which is vital for the trans-esterification reaction which converts the vegetable oil to biodiesel and glycerol) to the disposal or recycling of the waste glycerol. He advised anyone making biodiesel for the first time not to rush into producing enormous amounts.
“The thing is to start small, doing the reactions with some glass or plastic bottles,” he said. “Then as you get used to handling the liquids, you can increase the amount.” This came as a great relief as I had been eyeing that caustic lye with some trepidation.

The legal limit for home biodiesel production is 2,500 litres per year, tax-free. This is what Sustainable Bungay’s Biosdiesel group will aim at initially. The project will get underway once the weather warms up. And Colin meanwhile has invited us to come round the next time he does a ‘reaction’.

(ii) So last Saturday, 19th February a dozen of us turned up at Kris and Eloise’s to have a look at the set up in their garage and to make our first three litres of biodiesel. We crowded into the living room where Kris introduced the project and we discussed everything from logistics to legalities before descending on the kitchen for Eloise’s delicious soup and homebaked bread, David’s tasty flapjacks (his first ever!), Elinor’s ginger cake (no comment required!) and Brenna’s polenta, lemon and orange cake, also a first. I ate three slices of that!

Great Care Taken - Jim holds it steady whilst Kris pours the lye-methanol mix

Then we cleared all the food and utensils out of the way to do the reaction. Great care was needed (and taken) pouring the lye/methanol first into a glass measuring jug and then into plastic bottles with vegetable oil. As it was our first time (and the weather had not yet warmed up), we used clean vegetable oil.

Kris wore protective goggles and everyone handling the mixtures wore gloves. David and Josiah took photos. We kept the windows open to avoid suffocation by noxious fumes. My nervousness about caustic liquids was allayed both by the presence of Mike, a chemical engineer, and the fact that Kris was so calm.

Still in the Garage

We had to keep the temperature of the mixture at below 50 degrees for the reaction to take place safely (methanol is volatile and can produce an easily ignited vapour at higher temperatures), so the bottles were placed in a pan on the stove for about an hour. Meanwhile we went to look at the reaction vessel.

Shortly after this I had to leave, so I’ll sign off now with a photograph of the SB Biodiesel Group’s first post-reaction bottle of Biodiesel. More later on the separated liquids…

SBs First Biodiesel - In the Sink

Chips and Kebabs – Biodiesel

This is an amended version of my post on This Low Carbon Life (Transition Norwich blog) from yesterday, day 3 of our Waste Week.

The lorry pulled up outside the kebab shop in Beccles and I saw the words WASTE VEGETABLE OILS, (or similar, I didn’t have my camera handy), Great Yarmouth Council and J & H Bunn on the side. As Sustainable Bungay were waiting to pick up a still for our co-operative Transition Biodiesel project and we’d just planned a waste week on the TN blog, I went over and introduced myself to Ray Harding. This was in August.

I told Ray about Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich and our moves towards a low carbon life. I also said that whilst I’d reduced waste hugely in my own life, I knew next to nothing about what happened to waste oil and fats on a bigger scale in the catering industry.

I’d found the right man. Ray has worked for over thirty years (first in Germany and now in East Anglia) collecting waste vegetable oils and fats from restaurants, residential homes, school canteens and kebab shops, for conversion into biodiesel. At present he works for J & H Bunn, a fertiliser company based in Great Yarmouth, whose vehicles run on biodiesel and who produce some organic fertilisers.

Here is a distillation (sic) of what I learned:

This production of biodiesel from waste vegetable oil and fats has nothing to do with the ethanol made from crops like rapeseed and corn. The waste oils and fats Ray collects are taken to Viehouten’s huge processing plant in Holland, which produces 1000 tonnes of biodiesel a week from them. This is then sold on to Shell for use in transport.

In England some vegetable oil waste gets made into commercial biodiesel, but not the solid fats, which all go to the continent. In Germany and Holland these solid fats are used to produce ‘Summer Diesel’.

“Biodiesel is dying a death in England,” said Ray, “because the tax on it is so high. Over the years, it’s climbed from 0% to what it is now, 35% + VAT.”

So the business goes to Holland. Oil companies make only a few pence profit per litre of ‘conventional’ petrol here (because of the high tax), but can afford it because of the amount they produce. But it’s not worth their while making biodiesel. It struck me as a Transitioner that an awful lot of potential business is leaving the local economy here.

A huge quanitity of waste oil and fats get poured down the drain and create serious blockages in the water system. Ray had been running presentations along with Anglian Water about solutions to this problem and was featured in an article last Wednesday’s EDP (20th October, p.21).

Ray was concerned that anyone could now make themselves 2500 litres of biodiesel a year, partly because the resultant glycerine and fatty acid residues from the distillation process would also be poured down the drain. But with petrol at almost £1.20 a litre as opposed to 30p or so for homemade biodiesel, the financial attraction is clear.

I said we’d discussed the byproducts in Sustainable Bungay and jokingly added we were taking a very Permaculture approach to the whole project, doing the research, finding our ground. I had originally got very excited about the prospect of making herbal glycerine soaps, and in the space of one meeting I’d built up a whole social enterprise in my head selling high-quality locally produced ex-vegetable oil waste glycerine skin cleaning products with organic home-grown herbs which were being sold all round East Anglia… I WAS Monsieur Le Parfumier!

Only it wasn’t going to work out quite like that. For a start making something that wouldn’t take the first layer of your skin off would require further processing.

So now we have the Biodiesel still in Kris’s garage. Next is a group visit to someone in Aldeburgh who already has one up and running. Then who knows? A community biodiesel car club? A community van? Watch this space!

For info on Sustainable Bungay’s Biodiesel project click here

Pics: Filtered Waste Vegetable Oil from Wikipedia Public Domain; Another Mark’s Fish and Chip Shop, Southwold by me