Brew of Champions

Stepping into the city of  Berkeley’s recycling yard, I am greeted by the sweet scent of fresh brewing biodiesel—and by two enthusiastic scientists and a respirator-clad Dave Williamson, head of curbside recycling for the Ecology Center. Russ Teall, CEO of Biodiesel Industries, a Santa Barbara-based corporation that designs, builds, and runs biodiesel plants, and technical biodiesel consultant Randall von Wedel warn me not to inhale as I peer into a huge vat of what will soon be 100 percent biodiesel. When the process is complete, the aroma of the golden fuel is not unlike that of french fries.
Since mid-November, the yard has housed a makeshift field laboratory and a biodiesel reactor, making it possible to craft clean-burning biodiesel on-site. The reactor— a collection of vats, dials, and pipes that  resembles an eleven-year-old’s oversized  science project—is part of a study  commissioned by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to assess the feasibility of producing biodiesel commercially in the Bay Area. Project manager Teall chose Williamson as site manager because of Williamson’s four years’ experience using the alternative fuel.
Teall and Williamson visited several  Berkeley restaurants to collect discarded grease. The grease is siphoned from restaurant waste bins, transported back to the recycling yard, pumped through a filter to remove particulates, and mixed with alcohol and a catalyst in the reactor. As the brew is heated, glycerine, a byproduct, settles to the bottom to be separated out with a centrifuge. The glycerine can be marketed  to make soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. What remains—unfiltered biodiesel—is then cleaned, filtered, and tested.
The first batch, which took about three days and 200 gallons of grease, yielded about 170 gallons of biodiesel. Nine more batches followed, for a total of 1,700 gallons. The Ecology Center, which uses about 220 gallons per week to run its recycling fleet, will keep a good amount, and the rest will be distributed to other fleets. The Ecology Center currently gets its biodiesel from Imperial Valley-based Imperial  Western Products (IPW), the only other California producer. IPW obtains its grease from Los Angeles restaurants.
An important facet of the study is to  assess the feasibility of making biodiesel in the East Bay. Says Teall, “The goal here is to make biodiesel economically and  locally, and out of recycled product.”
The city of Berkeley recently celebrated its first anniversary of running an  entire public works fleet—180 trucks and school buses—on biodiesel. Berkeley is the first city in the United States, and probably the world, to convert its fleet to 100 percent biodiesel. The Ecology Center has been running its recycling fleet on biodiesel since March 2001.

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