PENDLETON - With the price of diesel at record highs and the price of gasoline not far behind, Bob Mansfield's backyard pastime might become more popular.
Mansfield and two partners, Bob Fowler and Robin Harris, brew their own biodiesel. Mansfield burns it in his 1976 Mercedes-Benz sedan.
A sixth-grade science teacher at Sandstone Middle School in Hermiston, Mansfield spends a lot of time on the road. In late spring and early fall, he commutes from Pendleton on his motorcycle, but when the weather's colder he's burning a mixture of diesel and his own biodiesel as he travels to and from work.
Armed with books and other literature from people who pioneered the process, Mansfield and his partners fashioned a biodiesel processor from a used 52-gallon electric water heater. After attaching a pump and assorted plumbing fittings, most of which they had around the house, they were ready for their first batch last summer.
The biggest investments were the pump, which cost less than $100, and a 55-gallon drum of methanol, which cost about $200.
The trio makes biodiesel from used cooking oil and grease, which they collect - with permission - from area restaurants. They figure the cost of their product is about $1 per gallon. That's less than a third of the cost of commercial biodiesel, which sells for $3.50 per gallon. regular diesel sells for about $2.60 per gallon.
Mansfield said the added cost and time involved in using biodiesel is offset because biodiesel is manufactured in the United States.
"We are buying a product produced by Americans who are living here and contributing to our economy," he said. "We are not truly a free nation when we rely on other countries for our sources of energy. We need to start looking at alternatives now to help us become less reliant on the oil-producing nations in the future."
As China, India and other nations increase their oil consumption, American will find itself sending more men and women into conflicts to secure America's oil interests, he believes.
"We need America to be a leader in renewable energy resources," he said. "Americans need to be more far-sighted than we've been in the last 30 years. I can remember the gas lines in the 1970s and thinking to myself that something must be done. Well, very little has been done by our leaders during that time, so I personally thought that I and other like-minded individuals must take action on our own to ensure change now. Hence, I became involved in the production of biodiesel."
The production process is relatively simple, as Mansfield describes it. He and his partners use 40 to 45 gallons of recycled fryer oil, trickle in 5 gallons of methanol and a little lye as a catalyst. They heat the mixture to 120 degrees for a couple of hours, which produces 35-40 gallons of biodiesel and 5-10 gallons of glycerin.
"I haven't found a market for the glycerin," Mansfield said.
He mixes one part of the biodiesel brew with three parts diesel and burns it in his car. He's noticed no particular change in performance, and still gets about 28 miles per gallon.
Biodiesel also has the blessing of the state.
"Biodiesel is a great product to use for a number of reasons," said Kevin Downing of Portland, clean diesel program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "If your concerns are about reducing global warming influences, improving energy security, promoting energy renewability, creating jobs in rural/farm economies, then biodiesel can't be beat."
Downing said biodiesel also has significant environmental benefits with reduced concerns about ill effects from spills and fewer emissions from most of the pollutants typically emitted by a diesel engine.
"From an air quality perspective, biodiesel is a significant, but not complete step toward reducing the air pollution impacts associated with diesel engine exhaust," Downing said.
For the user, he added, biodiesel is a relatively straightforward and easy way to improve operations.
"In fact, some users have found niche applications that surpass previous practice," Downing said. "In Hood River County, for instance, they have found that biodiesel, with its enhanced solvent qualities, improves the operation of their road paving equipment.
Mansfield said some biodiesel users burn it exclusively, but he and his partners haven't produced enough to do that. The process is time-consuming, particularly considering that Mansfield's team spends weekends collecting used oil and grease. Collecting the raw material is easier during warm weather than when it's cold, he said. Besides, congealed cooking oil and hardened grease are impossible to pump into the processing chamber, as they discovered in October. Not only that, but biodiesel itself gels at a higher temperature than diesel.
"That's a bad thing," he said, adding that he didn't have any problems with his mixed fuel congealing last winter.
"If I can brew in the summer and run in the winter, that would be good for me," Mansfield said, noting that he doesn't intend to do anything but make biodiesel for personal use. "It's kinda become a little cause for me."