Drivers get whiff of the future

Gas station attendants don't usually boast doctorates. So why does Ilya Goldberg, a genetics researcher at the National Institutes of Health, spend his Saturdays hanging out beside a fuel pump, filling up cars?

Because it's not gasoline. It's biodiesel, a fuel pressed from soybeans. And Goldberg is one of 50 believers in the Baltimore Biodiesel Collective who volunteer their time and money to sell this alternative fuel every weekend from an organic garden store in Baltimore.

Nearly pure vegetable fuel is not available at normal gas stations in the Baltimore area. And Goldberg and other advocates believe that driving diesel-powered Volkswagens powered by soy oil is good for the Earth - even better than driving hybrid cars, which are still dependent on oil.

They also argue that biodiesel is preferable to ethanol, which is normally distilled from corn or sugar cane, because using ethanol requires a modified engine.

Goldberg's veggie brew, however, can be burned in any normal diesel engine, and releases less air pollution and global warming gas than standard fuel. For consumers who oppose the Iraq war, it doesn't come from the Middle East. And as a bonus, it smells pleasantly of popcorn.

"It's taking a stand, a moral stand," said Goldberg, a home-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, as he pumped biodiesel into a customer's car behind the Mill Valley Garden and Farmers' Market at 2800 Sisson St. in Remington, not far from the Jones Falls. "This is what you can do to totally take yourself out of the petroleum equation."

Part oil-addiction therapy, part serious fuel business, the co-op members hang out on Saturdays amid stands of local organic endive and vendors peddling herbal tea and home-baked cranberry scones.

Inside the garden store, they take turns manning a wooden booth with a credit card processor and sign proclaiming "Baltimore Biodiesel." Outside, at the edge of the parking lot beside the brick industrial building, they have a 500-gallon tank of the fuel and a pump.

People who want to pay at the booth and fill up must first join the co-op, which started Oct. 28. New members must contribute a $100 joining fee, plus pay about $3.34 per gallon for the fuel, which is roughly 20 percent more per gallon than standard diesel. The organization attracts volunteers through its Web site, www.baltimorebiodiesel.org.

The fuel pump is open from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays. But these hours might be expanded later this year when the co-op installs a modern pump with an electronic card reader.

Carri Harlan, an architect from Catonsville, stopped by Saturday to fill up her diesel Volkswagen Golf. She said she doesn't mind putting up with extra cost and limited hours. The bumper sticker on her car proclaims: "Biodiesel. No War Required."

"My feeling is that if we didn't rely so much on petroleum, we wouldn't have gone to war in Iraq," said Harlan, as Goldberg filled up her tank. "If we went local and renewable, we wouldn't be in this terrible situation" in the Middle East.

The joy of soy

She held onto her 3-year-old daughter, Eva, who seemed determined to race off across the parking lot. Harlan noted that biodiesel fits into her family's vegetarian lifestyle. "We eat our soy food, we drink soy milk, and we fill up our car with soy fuel," she said. "That makes me happy."

The group launched the complex process of starting up a grass-roots fuel station three years ago. It was the brainchild of Davis Bookhart, a resident of the Oakenshawe neighborhood who was then running an alternative fuels promotion program for the Washington-based Consumer Energy Council of America.

Bookhart said he was bothered that there was no place to buy soy fuel in Baltimore. People could buy five-gallon buckets of biodiesel from Taylor Oil in Baltimore County, but the buckets sometimes spilled, and this sloppy format made it difficult to get the fuel into a car's tank. Or they could drive about 45 minutes to Westminster, but the increased driving defeated the purpose.

So Bookhart arranged for a tanker truck from Taylor Oil to deliver about 500 gallons of biodiesel every six to eight weeks to the co-op's storage tank in the garden store parking lot.

Taylor Oil buys it from a biofuel factory in Minnesota, which presses the oil from soybeans grown in the Midwest, said Rick Workman, the firm's president. Because vegetable oil turns to a gel in cold weather, the company typically mixes in some diesel, especially in the winter.

"It's a rapidly growing market," said Workman.

Energy efficiency

Bookhart, who now directs an environmental program at the Johns Hopkins University, said burning biodiesel produces more than three times the energy required to manufacture it. This is better than ethanol, which generates about 1.5 times as much energy as is required to make it, Bookhart said.

Cultivating and harvesting the soybeans used to produce biodiesel requires operating fuel-burning tractors, and the runoff from fertilizer in soy fields may pollute streams.

But diesel is much harder on the environment, he said. Oil refineries belch more air pollution, and shipping petroleum to the U.S. from the Middle East burns large amounts of fuel.

"If a tanker of petroleum spills, it's a major environmental hazard," he said. "If a container of biofuel spills, it degrades naturally. Biodiesel is about as toxic as table salt."

To start the co-op, Bookhart contacted Ted Rouse, a partner in the Baltimore development firm of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, and son of Inner Harbor developer James Rouse.

As it turned out, Rouse had recently purchased a diesel Volkswagen Jetta. But he was frustrated that he'd have to drive to Westminster for biodiesel.

So Rouse found an old, unwanted fuel tank. And he contacted a childhood friend, who owns the building holding the Mill Valley Market. The landlord agreed to donate a spot for the tank in the parking lot, plus a space for the booth in the store. Also helpful was a $3,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Energy.

Now the fuel is flowing.

Tim Rhodes, a photographer from Hamilton and member of the co-op, rolled up to the pump in his gray Jetta.

"I try to come here once a week, because I just really like the idea of not using OPEC fuel. Not only is it better for the environment, but it's a political statement," Rhodes said, as he watched his tank get filled by the attendant.

Goldberg, his hair tied in a ponytail and wearing battered jeans with duct tape over the ripped knees, worked the pump like a truck stop veteran. From his appearance, you'd never guess he earned a doctorate in cell biology from Johns Hopkins and was a research fellow at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"My wife calls it my fossil fuel support group," Goldberg said, putting the nozzle back on its hook, as another happy customer drove away, leaving a faint perfume of popcorn in the air.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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