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Motor fuel from vegetables, not the Middle East


BERLIN - Ron Cascio calls oil "the devil's tea" and decries what he sees as America's heroin-like addiction to the flammable black goo that fuels wars in the Middle East and pollutes his small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

So Cascio, a 50-year-old homebuilder, has gone cold turkey. For more than five years, he has avoided the gas pump and instead uses a form of vegetable oil in his pickup truck, station wagon, lawn tractor and the generator that powers his electric drills and saws.

His rationale for running these diesel engines on biodiesel, an oil squeezed from soybeans, is that it creates less soot and carbon monoxide pollution than petroleum, and it supports farmers he sees driving tractors near his home instead of regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Libya.

Cascio is one of a growing number of people across the country who perceive a moral good in consuming less oil by switching to an alternative fuel that they "home brew" in plastic barrels or buy at one of 300 distributors nationally. Five biodiesel distributors have opened in Maryland.

"When I saw them chopping people's heads off in Iraq, I thought - 'Add that to the price of gasoline'," said Cascio, as he cranked a hand pump to squirt sweet-smelling golden oil from a 500-gallon tank behind his home here into his Volkswagen Passat station wagon. "If you're putting petroleum into your car, you're putting blood into your car, too. I don't have blood on my hands."

The amount of biodiesel used by diesel trucks and cars in the United States has grown 60-fold in the past five years, to 30 million gallons last year, said Amber Pearson, a spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board, which is run by soy farmers.

It's not just tree-huggers trying it. The U.S. Navy, Park Service, Department of Agriculture, Postal Service and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are among 500 agencies, organizations and companies using varying amounts of the fuel, including 100 schools and 30 colleges.

The Navy buys biodiesel to run its trucks, cars and ground equipment at bases in the Northwest, said Lt. Tommy Crosby, Navy public affairs officer: "We are becoming more environmentally friendly and less dependent on oil, using what mother nature gave us."

The number of people switching to biodiesel nationally could rise even higher starting this month because its price is expected to fall. A recently approved federal tax credit for distributors should reduce the cost of the fuel to close to that of regular diesel fuel.

Biodiesel is sometimes $1 a gallon more expensive, which has been a major obstacle to wide acceptance, said Bob McCormick, senior fuels engineer for the federal National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado.

The Maryland Soybean Board also offers drivers cash rebates of up to $1,000 to help knock down the price of biodiesel. Sixty-nine commuters used this incentive last year, up from 25 in 2003 and about 10 in the first year, 2002. People who sign up for the one-year program submit receipts showing their biodiesel purchases, and the soy board refunds half of any sum paid above the market rate of petroleum diesel, up to $1,000.

Swapping tips in Internet chat rooms and during informal garage teach-ins, the biodiesel underground has learned what not many average drivers know: vegetable oil (even recycled restaurant grease) mixed with alcohol and lye can run any vehicle with a conventional diesel engine. Most diesel engines can also run on straight vegetable oil, but this gunks up the works in cool weather.

In some ways, biodiesel is like many other alternative fuels that have been tried across the country - hydrogen cells or electric batteries to power cars; corn cob combustion or solar panels to heat homes; windmills to generate electricity; and ethanol distilled from corn or sugar cane to extend gasoline.

But Walter J. Weber, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, said biodiesel has advantages over other alternatives because it's easy to produce. It employs commonly used farm products and runs engines available on the market today without any modifications.

"It would be feasible to operate all of the diesel engines in the U.S. today on at least partial biodiesel," said Weber. "This would bring reduced air pollution. And the beauty of biodiesel is that it's a renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels."

More than 98 percent of truck engines in the United States are diesel, but less than 1 percent of U.S. cars have diesel engines, mostly models made by Volkswagen, Mercedes and Jeep. By contrast, in Europe, almost half of new cars are diesel, with many purchased because they're more fuel-efficient.

Biodiesel is sometimes whispered about, as if hipsters were passing recipes for growing good weed. That's because in Maryland and some other states it's illegal to brew your own fuel without obtaining a license and paying taxes on every gallon.

"Most home brewers I know don't like to talk about the tax part of it," said Joe Rappa, 39, a teacher from upstate New York, who preaches the art of concocting biodiesel from waste fry oil discarded by college cafeterias. "It's extremely illegal to sell home-made biofuel."

But such hassles aren't a problem for people who buy biodiesel from the small but growing number of licensed dealers, such as Cropper Oil here on Route 50. Dealers in recent years have started selling the fuel at two stations in Westminster, and one each in New Windsor; Arlington, Va.; and in Anne Arundel County just north of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

During the late 19th century, German inventor Rudolph Diesel intended the engines he designed to run on vegetable oil. But it has always been cheaper to pump petroleum out of the ground than to make oil from plants. That could change because of war in the Middle East and a limited supply of petroleum, energy experts said.

Another question is how much farmland is available for fuel. Soy farmers in the United States could easily produce enough oil to replace 5 percent of the 34 billion gallons of diesel fuel guzzled every year by trucks and cars, McCormick said.

But to allow the complete replacement of petroleum diesel with vegetable diesel, the amount of farmland devoted to soybeans, poppies, peanuts, rape-seed or other oil-producing crops would have to expand sharply, crowding out some food crops, said McCormick.

Biodiesel produces half the soot, half the carbon monoxide and about a quarter of the greenhouse gases of petroleum, said McCormick. When drivers fire up engines fuelled by pure biodiesel, white smoke that smells like roasting corn puffs from the tailpipe instead of the acrid, black soot that normally chugs from diesel engines. But biodiesel increases nitrogen air pollution by about 10 percent, which could contribute to ozone problems in summer, McCormick said.

There's another drawback. Pure biodiesel congeals into a buttery-like mess at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so it must be mixed with conventional diesel or kerosene in winter.

This sticky problem was experienced by Ron Cascio's wife, Katherine Munson, a land-preservation planner who drives a 1987 Mercedes diesel.

"One of the first times I drove with biodiesel in the wintertime, I was heading to work and had gone a half-mile when my car started bucking, and then it stopped because the fuel had jelled," Munson said.

They fixed the problem by adding kerosene in cold weather - meaning the family is not totally petroleum-free. Since then, however, they've had smooth running, and they've convinced about a dozen friends to join their boycott of the "devil's tea."

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