Sympathetic Stupid

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Deep Fried Fuel

McDonald's are making a mistake introducing new healthy menus; that oil in their deep fryers could be the solution to the world's energy crisis!

In the same way that biomass power stations are a real green option, biodiesel is a true alternative fuel. Diesel engines, without any modification, can run on a fuel made completely of vegetable oil, avoiding completely the environmental negatives of mineral oil. Metaefficient has a great FAQ on the subject.

As they say, biodiesel can be made from "soy or canola oil, and can also be made from recycled fryer oil" which means fast food restaurants everywhere could be sitting on a gold mine. As far as I'm aware (judging from where I've worked), the oil is just disposed of after a day (or three) in the fryer. Any further value extracted from it is pure profit. And they could even do this themselves; as Sarah at Inhabitat shows, you can make this fuel in your own kitchen!

And this fuel has other advantages. Chief among them must be that your exhaust smells like popcorn, and more seriously has far less emissions of all kinds, though similar amounts of carbon. It's relatively unflammable, um, nonflammable, well, hard to burn, and very non-toxic. A downside is that, similar to diesel, it's not great in cold weather as it can start to solidify.

Cost? According to the FAQ, making it yourself costs about US$0.60 a gallon - that seems like about AU$0.21 a litre. Not taking into account the effort, of course, but still damn cheap. However, it's not that simply in Australia. According to this article from the Biodiesel Association of Australia, you can't manufacture biodiesel, even for personal use, without paying an excise to the ATO. That's AU$0.38 a litre. So that would make it almost 60c a litre; still cheap, but what about the hassle of dealing with the ATO? And it's illegal to do it at all without a licence.

Commercial cost? In the US, where it's available, it sells for between US$1.90-$3.50 a gallon, which is about AU$0.86-$1.34. But it's hard to compare as they have a different tax regime. It looks like it sells for a 10-25% premium on mineral diesel, so you'd assume here it would be at the upper end of that range. And of course these prices rely on some economies of scale being achieved.

Availability? In Australia? Practically nowhere. The most interesting development seems to be by the company Axiom Energy, outlined in this Age article. They're expanding a 10m litre plant in Laverton to a 100m litre plant in the next year. But it seems they're concentrating more on producing low-sulphur diesel from waste plastics. Not sure about the environmental implications of this; reduced sulphur levels are good, and it reduces the amount of plastic in landfills, but it does nothing for emissions. Everyone else in Australia is doing the ethanol thing, which seems shortsighted.