Ithaca Biodiesel

posted in: Creative Nonfiction | 1

This past Sunday, upon my return to Ithaca from visiting family and friends, my Ithacan friend Greg offered to pick me up at the airport, where I had dropped off my rental car. On the way back, something caught Greg’s eye in downtown Ithaca and he quickly asked “Hey, do you mind if we stop and see my friends really quick? It looks like they’ve got some vegetable oil fuel”

My curiosity led the way as we turned around and pulled into a driveway, with the trunk of Greg’s Volkswagen pointed at the trunk of another Volkswagen. “These guys work with Ithaca BioDiesel,” he explained. I was pretty sure that he had mentioned previously that his diesel engine had been modified to also run on vegetable oil, but I had not given it too much thought until now.

When Greg and I arrived, Brian and Jamie were moving “cubies”, small ~4.5 gallon plastic jugs, into their holding area. Each jug weighed about 20lbs and was easily carried with one hand. These cubies held the refined vegetable oil from their last production facility, and are available to members for use in their modified diesel engines. When Greg introduced me to them and we shook hands, I noticed the light purple gloves, which I presumed to be Nitrile rather than Latex, since Nitrile is inert to oils. I shook Jamie’s non-gloved left-hand and was pleasantly surprised that Brian’s gloved hand was not covered in oil and grime when I shook it.

Jamie, Greg, Brian

Brian and Jamie are both currently Ithaca residents, and are two of several member-owners of Ithaca Biodiesel. Jamie was “born in State College, PA, which has a little veggie oil fuel community.” He and his spouse bought their first veggie-oil-car while they were living in State College. They found it on CraigsList, but had to go to Pittsburgh, PA to pick it up. When they moved to Ithaca in 2008, they got involved with the Ithaca Biodiesel Co-op and have been increasingly active in the organization ever since. Brian, one of the original founders of the co-op, has lived in this area for over 10 years.

The Ithaca Biodiesel Co-op is currently in transition between refinement facilities so production is on hold, although they are storing their already-refined vegetable oil / biodiesel in a temporary holding area in the meantime.

A sock filter, left over from the last refinery

In addition to the cubies, some other relics from their past location were strewn about the area. I found what appeared to be a stack of sock filters, which were used for presumably filtering particulate matter from the raw oil they receive, which comes exclusively from restaurant waste. When asked about how many times the filters can be used, Jamie explained that you can theoretically re-use them indefinitely, but they need to be cleaned out frequently to ensure the oil can flow through at an even pace. If there is too much build-up, the oil flow slows and weighs on the filter, which can stretch it, and then it wouldn’t be effective enough to be useful.

I also saw a wide step-ladder (~5 feet in height) off to the side, some large barrels that looked like they were for holding raw oil stock.

Ithaca BioDiesel sells its products directly to its consumers, as opposed to having some centrally located filling station. Consumers can purchase their fuel in re-usable containers (1 or 5 gallon), or if they visit the refinery, fuel can be dispensed directly into their tank. Price per gallon is somewhat dependent on the volume purchased, but presently the prices are listed as $2 – $2.75 for SVO and $4 – 4.50 for Biodiesel, with volunteering members receiving a discount. “Volunteering” includes some of the labor involved in production. According to their website, the prices will be updated soon. Production is briefly on hold while the Co-op relocates to a new, larger location to resume refinement.

“In the past,” Jamie later explained, “we kept it at a higher price, but I think the standard pricing of the field is changing, such that now BioDiesel is more based on the price of home heating oil (which when I last checked is around a dollar cheaper than vehicle diesel)”. Ithaca Biodiesel has been trying to keep the price of their Biodisel product “below the price of ‘petro-diesel’” so that consumers learn to “associate BioDiesel with being less expensive.” Greg mentioned that when it was more expensive than PetroDiesel most of the members didn’t mind spending a little extra since it helped support a local refinery.

* * * *

The diesel engine was developed in 1893 by Rudolf Diesel, a man born to German parents that had emigrated to France, although throughout his life he lived in England and Germany as well. Although the diesel engine conventionally petroleum-based fuel, Diesel originally wanted to explore fuels based on coal dust or vegetable oil, with his prototypes running on peanut oil. It differs from conventional combustion engines (like you would find in a normal car) because of how it combusts the fuel: A normal gasoline engine uses spark plugs to ignite the fuel/air mixture during the “power stroke”, whereas a diesel engine relies strictly on super-compressing the fuel until it combusts on its own. Diesel engines are more efficient and burn cleaner than conventional gasoline engines. Biodiesel and SVO engines are even cleaner still.

Vegetable oil, or “SVO” (straight vegetable oil) requires a diesel engine that has been modified to draw from both its normal gas tank or a separate reserve (holding 5-10 gallons) of vegetable oil. With the flick of a switch, it can pull either vegetable oil (which requires heating to reduce viscosity) or traditional diesel / biodiesel (which does not require heating). The vegetable oil is heated using the coolant from the radiator.

Biodiesel is based on vegetable oil, but requires some chemical modification to reduce viscosity so that additional heating is not required and it can be used in any diesel engine. Biodiesel is not the same as Ethanol (which is an alcohol, rather than an oil), although both have some ancestry in Corn. The Ithaca Biodiesel Co-op’s website explains:

Through a chemical reaction known as trans-esterification the vegetable oil becomes thinner, with a viscocity more similar to petroleum diesel. It burns cleaner than petroleum diesel, making it a more environmentally sustainable choice. Ithaca Biodiesel makes its biodiesel from recycled waste oil from local restaurants, making it the most sustainble type of biodiesel there is. Even when the percentage of biodiesel used is small (20% biodiesel, known as B20, is commonly used), the reduction in emissions is significant. The more biodiesel you mix into your regular diesel, the greater the environmental benefit. [Source]


Greg asked if he could fill up his Vegetable oil tank and Jamie offered to let Greg use a handpump to draw some out of Jamie’s Vegetable oil tank; Jamie has been having a small issue with the backflow in his car’s vegetable oil fuel lines and so he needs to empty his tank anyways. The handpump is a long rod, about 6 feet in length, that has a joint midway through to allow it to bend. A hand-crank near the bend creates a vacuum that siphons liquid from one side and releases it through the other, much like you would do with a siphon, except both tanks can be level with one another. Greg fills up his tank, occasionally stopping to check the fuel level.


The vegetable oil tanks were stored in the area that would normally hold the spare tire, and the tank was circular in shape, presumably designed to fit that area pretty snugly. It looked like a very large canteen. Tubes and a couple wires run from the tank along the edge of the trunk. Most of the surface in that area is covered with a small amount of old vegetable oil, and there was a faint scent of the same. The handiwork is clearly from a passionate Maker / DIY person. Jamie had explained to me earlier that the engine modifications necessary are not terribly difficult, but that you learn a lot about how your car works in the process, particularly the fuel system.

Greg popped the hood of his VW and showed me his modified fuel system, indicating the lines that run back to the normal fuel tank, and the ones that run to the vegetable oil tank. A single valve switch controls the flow. The fuel filter that receives the flow directly from the tank, before running it to the engine, is wrapped in what appeared to be metallic tubing. Greg explained that the coolant runs through that tubing and is used to warm the vegetable oil to reduce its viscosity before it runs to the engine.

The Co-op’s website points out that in the summer, up to 50% Biodiesel (B50) can be used in the engine without any modification at all. Colder Winter months can only support 20% (B20) Biodiesel. Although Biodiesel is thinner than SVO, it is still thicker than Petrodiesel. Most cars can have their fuel lines switched out for Biodiesel-compatible lines for about $60, allowing them to run 100% BioDiesel all-year-round.

In the front-seat of Greg’s car, between the stick shift and the car stereo, sits a small rectangular module with a gauge and a rocker switch, which he identified as a “double-pole, double throw” (DPDT). When left in the middle, neutral, position, the engine will draw and backflow into the normal fuel tank. When rocked to one side, the engine will draw and backflow from the vegetable oil tank, and when rocked to the other, it will draw from the normal tank and backflow to the vegetable oil tank.

This last setting, he explained, is to prevent vegetable oil from sitting in the engine when it has been turned off. Because of viscosity issues, the engine must be “cleaned out” with normal diesel before it is shut off. During warmer seasons, Greg said he will typically just turn it back to neutral a few minutes before shutting off the car, since the warmer temperature keeps the vegetable oil liquid enough without help; colder climates would require him to take the extra precaution of cleaning out the fuel line first, though.

* * * *

“You’re all set!” Brian said, happily, “you’ll be smelling french fries all the way home.” When vegetable oil combusts in a diesel engine, its exhaust has the more-pleasant-than-normal-diesel aroma that resembles french fries. Pulling out of the driveway, the engine hummed and we drove into town, leaving the scent of fast-food in our wake.

For more information about the Ithaca Biodiesel Co-op, please check their website; you can also like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.