Wesley Musgrave's diesel truck doesn't smell like regular diesel fumes. He and his wife, Jessica, actually can detect a hint of Chinese food in fumes wafting from the tailpipe.
"Or maybe, if we get the oil from the taco place, it will smell a little like burritos," Jessica said.
The 2004 GMC Sierra 2500 HD truck runs on clean-burning biodiesel, a product that can be made from leftover restaurant grease.
Musgrave has a few drums set up at Ocean Pearl, 441 W. Victory Way, for the restaurant to dump their leftover vegetable oils and animal fats into. He then converts those oils into biodiesel in is own backyard.
"It's really just fun," he said about the process. "I started off doing it because I couldn't afford the gas anymore, and even though gas prices are down, it's still cheaper."
Musgrave began making biodiesel a year ago when fuel prices were at their peak. At the time, he said, diesel cost $4.93 per gallon at gas stations.
Each gallon of biodiesel costs under $2.00, and most of that expense comes from electricity used and the methanol needed to turn the oil into fuel.
Biodiesel runs significantly cleaner than diesel. One hundred percent biodiesel will emit about half the unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide that petroleum diesels do, and it's nontoxic, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
A dirty job
In Musgrave's backyard, an elaborate set-up of greasy oil drums, valves and hoses, sits between the dog kennel and a large white tool shed.
"Even if you do it the cleanest you possibly can, it's still dirty," Musgrave said.
The Musgraves' 4-year-old son, Xavier, doesn't seem to mind the grease and has taken to watching his father while he goes through the process.
"It's biodiesel," Xavier said, pointing at one of the drums. "It's for big trucks and little cars."
Musgrave makes his diesel in batches of 30 gallons, with each taking about two weeks to complete.
Most of his materials, like the oil and the barrels he uses, were free, and each 30 gallons of grease will translate to 30 gallons of clean biodiesel, making the process relatively efficient and cost-effective.
Musgrave starts by filtering the oil to get rid of all of the food particles, making the reaction process go smoother.
The oil then is heated to 130 degrees so the excess water evaporates and is sucked out by a vacuum system.
He then has to figure out the pH of his oil mixture, which can vary depending on the amount of animal fat or vegetable oil. The oil itself is an acid, so Musgrave uses lye - a common, naturally occurring base - to bring the pH down.
The lye mixture is key: if he uses too much lye, he might end up with what he got with some of his earlier batches of biodiesel: a barrel full of soap.
Soap is made of glycerin, a by-product of the biodiesel process.
Musgrave introduces five gallons of methanol to the batch of vegetable oil, which will take the place of the glycerin on the chemical structure of the ester, a process called "transesterification," which is what turns the substance form oil to diesel.
The extra five gallons of glycerin then is extracted to another tank, where another process can be used to turn it into regular hand soap.
"It's great," Jessica said. "We have a bar at every sink in our house."
Jessica calls the whole process "nifty," and is glad to have an easy way to get rid of her extra cooking grease.
"It's a lot more productive," she said. "And it gives him something to do when he's not at work."
When Musgrave has the oil, he will spend about 20 to 30 hours a month making the biodiesel, which can last as many as three months.
Fuel for the future?
The final product - a methyl ester - is clean, despite the grease, alcohol and sweat involved in making it.
The dark, amber liquid is so clean, in fact, that running biodiesel in older diesel cars can clog filters quickly as it cleans out the petroleum diesel residue left in the tank and hoses.
Musgrave's truck ran on regular diesel for 100,000 miles before switching to biodiesel last summer, however, he hasn't seen any disadvantages besides having to change the filters more often.
"It definitely runs quieter," he said. "And it runs at a cooler temperature. I haven't had to do any modifications to the truck to make it work."
He said the clean fuel is a good lubricant and can extend the life of engine parts like injectors.
The only major problem, however, is running biodiesel at cooler temperatures. Biodiesel will turn to gel in cool weather, depending on the mixture of oils. Animal fats, for example, will congeal at 40 degrees.
It's easy to run 100 percent biodiesel in the summer, Musgrave said, but during the winter, it needs to be diluted to about 20 percent for it to stay in liquid form.
Because of its impracticality, biodiesel might not be the alternative fuel of the future.
"It's not really practical in the winter," he said "But it might be the stepping stone to something bigger."
But Musgrave's efforts have inspired others to become interested in the process, and he is willing to pass on his knowledge.
"I would advise people to not spend a lot of money on it," he said. "And do the research."
Although the process is a fun hobby for him, his favorite part is being finished.
As for Xavier, he hopes to someday have his own yellow or red truck and make his own biodiesel when he grows up like his dad.
"Hopefully (the air) will be a little cleaner when we're done with it," Musgrave said.
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org.