🕔Mar 09, 2006

While big corporations contemplate multi-gazillion dollar wind energy projects for Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii, a couple of North Beach residents are already busy creating their own alternative energy reality.

Meredith Adams and Lars Erickson are both living off the power grid in the small beachside community near the Whale Bone museum, and they are experimenting with bio-diesel fuel.

You could be forgiven for mistaking their operation for the lab of a mad scientist. A shed full of jerry cans, kegs, and buckets, as well as several unrecognizable contraptions, is where they are cooking up bio-diesel, which will be used to power their diesel-engine vehicles.

Bio-diesel, interchangeable with regular diesel, is extracted from vegetable oil—in this case, waste vegetable oil from the deep fryers of the islands’ many greasy spoon restaurants. Adams said that they have been stockpiling used oil for months, mostly from John’s Café and Howlers in Queen Charlotte City. The oil used to cook your calamari could now potentially be used to fuel vehicles, instead of being destined for the dump.

“The guy who invented the diesel engine intended for it to be a multi-fuel engine,” said Erickson. “Everyone’s talking about hydrogen cars, electric cars—but this exists right now, and people can do it.”

A 20-per cent bio-diesel mix, or “B-20,” is available at the pumps already in some places in other parts of the world, including Australia and parts of Europe, where diesel vehicles are more common.

The exhaust from a vehicle burning vegetable oil is cleaner than the stuff that’s usually spewing out of your car. “It smells like burning French fries,” said Erickson. There’s no sulfur dioxide, less soot, and it also creates what’s called a “neutral carbon cycle,” explained Adams.

The carbon in petroleum, drawn up from deep in the earth and then released into the atmosphere, is what’s causing an imbalance, leading to the greenhouse effect. On the other hand, plants naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and when burned, they give off the same amount of carbon that they consumed—hence, neutral.

“I had a Pathfinder,” said Adams, “but I was dissatisfied that me buying gas was contributing to so many problems, worldwide.”

This option recycles a waste product, keeps sludge out of the landfill, pollutes less, and, if it all goes as planned, Adams and Erickson will save a bundle on fuel costs. They get the oil for free, as it’s considered garbage. They have to buy a few things to make it work, but with everything factored in, the net cost is about 27 cents a litre, they estimate.

To turn it into bio-diesel, you have to separate the ester from the glycerin molecules, explained Adams. First, it gets filtered to remove any chunks, and then it’s heated up by wood power to boil any water off, and then cooled to a specific temperature. Next, they add a methanol/lye mixture. Then the concoction gets agitated for half an hour—using a souped-up paint shaker—followed by a settling period. After that, the purer liquid is siphoned off the top, and washed with water to remove the soapy residue. The by-product: a pretty nice glycerin soap.

“I used it to wash my hair the other day,” said Adams, “and it worked pretty well.” The whole thing is pretty responsible, she said. You can put it in your compost—it’s completely biodegradable.

But this production is just the beginning. Bio-diesel doesn’t require any mechanical modifications. But with a few adjustments and additions, a diesel engine can run on pure oil, which is their next goal. The possibilities are endless.

“There’s a fish plant in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, that is powered by fish oil rendered from offal,” said Adams. Another potential fuel source is algae—which is up to 50 per cent oil.

In a related project, Adams and Erickson are also building a windmill on the windswept North Beach dunes. A huge pole has been erected, with wires holding it in place. Soon, the colourful fish windsock at the top will be replaced by a whirling windmill, which will charge a battery bank at the base.

“Something’s got to give,” said Adams, “the way things are now is just not sustainable—it’s high time.”

Adams’ Volkswagen Jetta has already clocked hundreds of kilometres running on their veggie-based concoction. Far from being an inferior fuel source, she said, the car is running better than ever—starting easier and running more smoothly. “She’s purring like a tiger,” she said.