Beer and Biofuel finally come together to great effect

Ray Holan is an accomplished auto mechanic, biofuel advocate, author of the book Sliding Home: A Complete Guide to Driving Your Diesel on Straight Vegetable Oil and regular feature contributor to AutoblogGreen.

Compared to a VW Jetta TDI, this truck's a monster.

One look at the Great Lakes Brewing Company's Freightliner tractor trailer and it's immediately evident this is no diminutive VW. This baby is serious hardware. The Cleveland-based company's rig can haul a trailer stuffed to the double doors with 22 pallets of vegetable oil (OK, or 22 pallets of bottled beer). At 60 cartons per pallet (each about 4.54 gallons), that works out to 6,000 gallons of salad oil – enough to fuel about 15 converted Jetta TDI's for a year.

But it's what's up front that counts. The Freightliner not only hauls vegetable oil - and the occasional load of brewski's. It has been converted to run on vegetable oil as well as diesel.
One of the 100 gallon saddle tanks holds regular diesel fuel. The other is for filtered, recycled cooking oil. The vegetable oil tank is heated by two coolant warmed heat exchangers. Once the oil is up to temperature, a dashboard mounted switch is thrown to pipe the hot oil to the diesel injection pump and, presto chango, diesel fuel is off the clock and vegetable oil takes the wheel. Forget the petroleum fuel stops. This sucker flies on fryer oil.

Who in their right mind would convert a perfectly good M100 Cummins six cylinder turbodiesel to run on straight vegetable oil? Obviously, an owner with enough foresight to see which way diesel fuel prices were heading. Or an owner who aspires to operate as "green" a business as possible. Or, maybe both.

Let's back up the monster truck. A little history is in order.

Pat and Dan Conway, the owners of Great Lakes Brewing Company opened the doors of their microbrewery and restaurant in 1988. Now distributing their hand-crafted beer and ale in four states, they outgrew the "microbrewery" designation sometime in the distant past. The brothers had always been environmentally friendly, even before it was fashionable. Pat puts it this way, "minimizing waste or turning it into something useful is good for our profits and good for the planet. The two are not mutually exclusive". Some of the green strategies adopted by these Irish entrepreneurs over the years include:

• Operating a worm farm that consumes restaurant food scraps to create outrageous hummus highly prized by organic gardeners
• Recycling "low-fill" beer into salad dressing and ice cream (no kidding!)
• Baking barley, left over from the beer making process, into pretzels and breads
• Featuring locally grown produce and meats in the restaurant

So it was not a huge leap for the GLBC owners to jump on the biodiesel bandwagon about four years ago when approached by a local alternative fuels advocate (your humble servant). Prototype biodiesel production fueled an early diesel acquisition of a used diesel van that had served a rental car company as an airport shuttle. Running on homemade biodiesel, it was renamed the "Fatty Wagon" and pressed into service transporting patrons to and from Cleveland Indians baseball games. A sign in the back window proudly proclaiming "Fueled by Our Restaurant Grease". It was a real conversation starter around town.

Somewhere along the way, Greasel Conversions of Drury, Missouri convinced everyone it would be a grand idea to go all the way and convert the Fatty Wagon to run on straight vegetable oil. This would by-pass the expense, labor, and risks of whipping up batches of homemade biodiesel fuel. A bargain was struck, the conversion was made, and the Fatty Wagon was re-born as a biodiesel, diesel, straight vegetable oil "tri-fuel" vehicle.

Emboldened by this success, GLBC decided to supersize their next diesel and, with Greasel Conversions (now Golden Fuel Systems) help, the Fatty Wagon welcomed a BIG brother – as in Freightliner tractor trailer BIG – into the family in October 2005.

So how is the big younger brother doing in the school of hard knocks?

GLBC reports the following:

• SVO averages about $1.11/gallon versus $2.85/gallon for diesel.
• Since the rig only needs diesel to start and end the trip, approximately two gallons of diesel are needed for one 100 gallon trip on SVO. Based on this ratio, costs savings of running on the diesel/SVO combination versus running on diesel alone are over 50% (roughly $5,000 for the year).
• The SVO truck recently achieved 785 miles on one 100 gallon tank of SVO (averaging 7.85 miles/gallon versus the general 7 miles/gallon on conventional diesel).
• Preliminary tests show that SVO emissions result in lower amounts of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide than diesel.

Justis Clifford, the GLBC employee in charge of keeping the Freightliner fed, offered a few observations about life with a monster that has an appetite for large quantities of vegetable oil. "The most difficult part about it is when we have to supplement our supply of oil with oil we get from a local rendering (i.e. restaurant oil collection) company. Our restaurant's oil is pretty good. They keep the meat fats out of it and collect those separately, so the stuff I get for filtering pours well. When meat fats get mixed in, like the stuff we get from sources other than our restaurant, it has to be settled. We end up with two layers, filtering takes a long time, and it's a real hassle. Waiting for the oil to filter is my least favorite aspect of the job. (GLBC uses bag filters and gravity - less energy intensive than cartridge filters and pumps, but more time consuming). On the positive side, it's just awesome to pour the filtered stuff into the saddle tank on the truck and know that this crazy thing works!"

Pat Conway, one of the owners, points out that using SVO as fuel results in a host of additional benefits in that:

• It is more cost effective.
• It burns cleaner. The exhaust smokes less, smells better and has the faint aroma of French fries.
• It lubricates better. SVO improves lubrication of fuel injectors over regular diesel.
• It recycles a waste product.
• It uses a renewable fuel derived from farm crops rather than a non-renewable fuel (petroleum).
• It contributes to our country's energy independence by minimizing the amount of imported petroleum consumed

The Conway brothers seem to be true believers when it comes to alternative fuels. Pat has a 1986 BMW 524td diesel sedan converted to run on straight vegetable oil. Brother Dan drives a new Honda Accord hybrid.

Like any good story, a sequel is in the making. Under consideration is a co-generation plant for the restaurant and brewery to be fueled by (you guessed it), a straight vegetable oil fired boiler. Looks like there may soon be another mouth to feed at the Conway canola table.

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