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Posted on Fri, Mar. 03, 2006
Biodiesel offers an alternative Berkeley cooperative offers commuters a way to get around while keeping in line with their morals By Dorothy Vriend CORRESPONDENT

Berkeley resident Jane De Martini likes to ride her bicycle as much as possible, but with a teaching job in Pittsburg this year she found herself putting hundreds of miles every week on her car.

When an accident at the Bay Bridge toll plaza totaled her Saab, she was ready for something that fit better with her environmental principles -- a Volkswagen Jetta with an engine that she can fill with bio-diesel fuel.

"It was a good opportunity to end my dependency on fossil fuels," De Martini said.

She enjoys fueling up at BioFuel Oasis on Fourth Street at Dwight Way, even if it takes a few minutes longer than a stop at a typical gas station. While she can't just slip her credit card into the pump and press a button, there's the added benefit of getting a chance to talk with like-minded people who come from around the Bay Area to fuel up.

At BioFuel Oasis, patrons have to pull into the garage one at a time to use the single bio-diesel pump. A sign-up sheet at the door encourages clients to get out of their cars and chat. Inside, a comfortable old couch, some literature and a few organic snacks are also designed to enhance the wait.

BioFuel Oasis is a worker-owned cooperative run by five women. One of the owners, Novella Carpenter, says many clients are environmentalists who want to cut down on air pollution; others are against the Iraq war, and want to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. On a recent Saturday, business was steady with three or four people at a time queuing up or waiting inside the small office.

Kathy Swartz, 28, vowed she wouldn't buy a car unless she could feel good about it. On this particular Saturday, she filled up her first car, a VW Jetta, and six five-gallon containers before heading back to Livermore. At $3.60 per gallon her bill came to just over $150, but she said she wouldn't have to come back for well over a month, maybe two.

Joseph Sardelis, from the Hayward area, said it was no bother to fuel up his 1976 Mercedes in Berkeley, calling it a healthier choice.

Kate Busby came from San Francisco, saying she felt good about supporting a women's collective. "Becoming part of an alternative economy matches my values," Busby said.

Made with 85 percent vegetable oil (plus ethanol or methanol), bio-diesel is a renewable resource, nontoxic and biodegradable. No conversion is necessary to run this fuel in a diesel engine, and it can be blended with diesel fuel at any time in a vehicle's tank. Emissions are cleaner, with no sulfur, 50 percent less particulate matter and 78 percent less carbon dioxide than diesel fuel, says Carpenter. Emissions are also cleaner than gasoline, with fewer greenhouse gases and particulates.

Marianne Balfe, 27, of Saratoga uses diesel fuel in her 1985 Mercedes. She says one of the drawbacks of using bio-fuels is that fueling stations are hard to find. She gets the fuel delivered to her home in Saratoga from Yokayo BioFuels in Ukiah but uses regular diesel fuel when she goes on long trips. She chose to drive a car she could fill with bio-fuel over a hybrid that still uses gasoline and has large batteries to dispose of.

"I feel like the (Middle East) wars are based on foreign oil, and I'm glad not to be as much a part of it," Balfe said.

Fuels containing more than 20 percent bio-diesel generally don't pass international fuel standards to which California adheres, said Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But distributors like BioFuel Oasis operate under a variance. According to its Web site,, BioFuel Oasis files quarterly reports on vehicle types using the fuel, amount of fuel used, and any fuel-related problems encountered, as a condition of that variance. It cautions that bio-fuel can degrade rubber fuel lines and seals found in older-model cars, and suggests replacing these with synthetic products.

Bio-fuel can also clog fuel filters by dissolving sludge built up from use of diesel fuels. The Web site recommends also that clients mix bio-fuel with regular diesel in cold-weather conditions.

The B-100 grade sold at BioFuel Oasis consists of about 80 percent vegetable oil that has been modified to fuel a car. The modification is necessary to strip off the fatty acid that would clog your engine, Carpenter said.

BioFuel Oasis is a distributor only, but fuel can also be made in anyone's backyard. Carpenter cited a basic recipe: Collect discarded vegetable oil from a local restaurant and filter out any chunks. Heat up 40 gallons of vegetable oil in a large sealed drum and add eight gallons of sodium methoxide (methanol plus household lye). Mix (with a marine pump) until fatty acids (glycerin) fall to the bottom; remove the glycerin; add water; create bubbles throughout the mixture to get soaps out; let the water settle to the bottom and drain.

The mixture is then ready to pump into your tank. Carpenter recommends that people take a class before trying it on their own -- classes can by found at

"It's not like making biscuits," she cautioned.

2006 Wire service sources
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