Homebrews & Gateway Drugs

Every new technology has its quirks, and biodiesel is no exception. Maria “girl Mark” Alovert, an inventor and biodiesel guru, wants to make sure those idiosyncrasies don’t turn people off. “Whenever a new technology comes around people are very ready to dismiss it, and we’ve seen that in biofuel,” she says. “If problems come up, a fair amount of the population hears about it and says ‘Oh, I told you so.’ That leads to reduced acceptance in the future even when those problems are solved.”

Alovert is working to eliminate problems from the brewing process, and she teaches workshops all over the country on brewing biodiesel at home. The workshops serve a dual purpose: keeping biodiesel local and creating a connection with the technology that combats negative press. She says backyard mechanics are catching on: “It helps the more people become personally familiar with it—whether they make it, tried making it, or if someone in their community has done so.”

Although she’s been offered jobs in the industry and has contributed her technical expertise to some commercial projects, she’s turned down most to focus on homebrewing, or, as she describes it: “non-industry, inhouse production.” She self-published her book, Biodiesel Homebrew Guide, and designed a homebrew system called the Appleseed Reactor, based around a water heater and inexpensive hardware items. Complete plans are available at www.biodieselcommunity.org. “That has created a much larger population of homebrewers,” she says. The reactor has spawned small businesses that sell bits and pieces; her book is available at www.localb100.com.

Alovert, who grew up in New York City but moved to Berkeley about seven years ago, first heard about biodiesel when she was learning to be a mechanic in North Carolina in the early 1990s. “I spent a lot of time keeping old gas-guzzlers on the road,” she says, “and that didn’t seem like a good thing. When I heard about biodiesel it clicked in terms of several of my interests.”

Since then, she has been involved from the technical to the political. Two years ago she and a Bay Area group of biodiesel promoters and business owners held a conference coinciding with the trade association National Biodiesel Board’s convention in Palm Springs. Alovert’s parallel conference was geared toward informing commercial biodiesel users about fuel choices—the advantages of biodiesel made from different kinds of oil and the good and bad aspects of using waste oil. “We were concerned that there would be a lot of greenwashing of unsustainable practices, like using blends—20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. We wanted people to come away not buying the company line.

“We were also trying to educate the consumer. Although for the most part people can put biodiesel in their tanks without doing anything to their cars, there are differences. People can’t drive around in freezing weather with 100 percent biodiesel in their tanks. Just because a large supplier may be able to sell cheaper biodiesel, that’s not a step forward if they don’t devote the time to customer education.”

Alovert has shifted her focus to quality control—an issue the National Biodiesel Board has tried to avoid. “It seems like a better place for me to put my efforts,” she says. “I’m building a file of variables that come up for various producers and trying to highlight some issues with quality control.” She conducts her experiments in a gas chromatography lab at a Bay Area college.

She’s also creating a mid-scale biodiesel production system for farmers, construction crews, and commercial users in the Midwest and on the East Coast. “We’re trying to slash their current fuel costs by producing on-farm,” she says. “I’m starting a consulting business around plant design that would produce about 10,000 gallons.” And she’s developing a plant for a Colorado chemical company for use in its trucks. “A 10,000-gallon-a-month system makes little sense commercially but is useful for in-house fuel for fleets,” she explains. Alovert uses her workshops to make face-to-face connections with farmers, biodiesel producers, and distributors who could be clients or partners in her new project.

Teaching workshops is also a way for Alovert to spread her values. “People get interested because they want to save money. Homebrew can be pretty cheap,” she says. “So people get into it because they’re trying to save a buck dragging their horse trailer around, but then they really start thinking about energy use.

“I’ve been using the phrase ‘gateway drug’ to refer to biodiesel because it fits in with other weird hobbies people do around cars,” she says. “Before they know it, they learn about greenhouse gas emissions and conservation and trying to aim for better fuel economy. I’ve been joking that I’m the evangelizer to the rednecks.”

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