Vegetable Oil May Be Fuel of the Future

Pensacola pair form Northwest Florida's first bio-diesel business.

Published: 17-Jan-2006

N class=body> The next time you're driving along Pensacola streets and suddenly smell french fries, you might be following Greg Threadgill's diesel truck rather than passing a fast-food restaurant.

Threadgill and partner Robbie Clopton, co-owners of T-Gill Fuels, are among the first in Northwest Florida to venture into the bio-diesel business.

And they believe it will prove to be a good move -- both financially and environmentally.

Bio-diesel can be made readily from any kind of vegetable oil, including soybeans, peanuts, or sunflower seeds, and some types of algae.

Even used vegetable oil from restaurants' frying vats can be a source of biodiesel fuel once filtered, Threadgill said. In fact, when German inventor Rudolph Diesel first developed the diesel engine in 1895, he designed it to run on vegetable oil.

Although still a relatively small part of their fuel business, Clopton and Threadgill see clear signs of a growing regional and national market for domestically produce biodiesel fuels.

The two businessmen believe bio-diesel can help ease the gasoline and fuel oil shortages that plagued the Gulf Coast last year, and also improve air quality.

"We see it as an emerging technology," Threadgill said. "Number one, it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Two, it will help our domestic farming industry, and, three, it's clean-burning. I've been running bio-diesel in my Ford truck for several months and have had no issues."

Most of Threadgill and Clopton's biodiesel sales, so far, have gone to local military bases, and the occasional customers who drive-up to T-Gill's Herman Street headquarters and fill up their diesel automobiles or trucks. Cost of the fuel is averaging about $2.60 a gallon, and miles per gallon is the same as pure diesel, said Clopton.

T-Gill's supplier is located in Monroeville, Ala., and Clopton said there are biodiesel plants springing up all over the country, with most concentrated in the Midwest farming regions.

Clopton said the biodiesel fuel they sell typically is mixed with petroleum-based diesel in a 20- to 80 percent ratio.

This is necessary because vegetable oils have a relatively high viscosity, which means at temperatures below 150 degrees Fahrenheit biodiesel will thicken and possibly clog fuel lines.

One way to use pure vegetable oil as a fuel, said Threadgill, is to modify the vehicle to heat up the oil before it enters the fuel line and the engine.

Due to the relatively warm weather in Pensacola, Threadgill said "stretching" diesel fuel with a 20 percent additive of biodiesel works well, provides better lubrication and causes the engine to run quieter.

Although bio-diesel is a small but rapidly growing alternative fuels market, it has attracted an impressive list of investors and advocates, including singer-songwriters Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, who both use the fuel to power their tour busses.

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