By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
You may spot business owner Yale Wong cruising the streets in his shiny black Mercedes Benz. However, it is what’s inside his luxury sedan that grabs the most attention. Wong fuels his car with biodiesel made from food grease and vegetable oil — yes, the same grease used to deep fry your fish ‘n’ chips, chicken tenders, and side order of fries. Some consider it to be a promising alternative to petroleum fuel and a better option than soy-based biodiesel, which has recently been criticized for not being “green” enough.
“America needs to take a stand and provide a green alternative,” said Wong. “We need a sustainable fuel that will enable us to break our dependence on foreign oil.”
Wong founded his renewable energy startup company General Biodiesel, Inc. in 2006. His business collects meat scraps and uses vegetable oil from restaurants across Washington state. The company then renders the oil and converts it into usable fuel.
When Wong started, there were seven biodiesel companies. Now he is the only one on this side of the Cascades.
“We take a chemical called methanol and add it to the vegetable oil,” explained Wong. “That separates the glycerin out and allows you to pour the biodiesel straight into your tank.” He said the blend works in any diesel engine without having to make any modifications.
Wong calls his business a “double green” company because it takes what would otherwise be poured down drains or dumped into landfills, and converts it into clean, renewable energy.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), biodiesel in its purest form (B100) can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent (other studies suggest that it can reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 80 percent). The EPA also found that biodiesel reduces the emission of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfates, hydrocarbon, and air toxics.
The City of Seattle is currently looking into the possibility of using this type of biodiesel to power its fleet of government vehicles. This spring, Mayor Greg Nickels ordered the city to stop purchasing soy-based biodiesel, which had fueled hundreds of city vehicles including fire engines and pickup trucks over the last five years. This instruction came after the EPA released a report suggesting that soy-based biodiesel was not significantly better at preventing greenhouse gas emissions than regular biodiesel.
Seattle’s Fleets and Facilities Department (FFD) and Department of Parks and Recreation are now testing the performance of biodiesel generated solely from waste grease and vegetable oil.
“[It] appears to be a promising alternative to growing crops specifically for fuel because less greenhouse gas is created as a byproduct,” said FFD Public Information Officer Katherine Schubert-Knapp.
“At this point, we’re looking at how it performs technically and waiting to see if anyone is able to manufacture it on a large-scale.”
Wong declined to say whether his company is participating in the city’s testing. He did, however, applaud the city for making strides in the right direction.
“It is absolutely a good idea,” said Wong.
“Soybean biodiesel takes more energy to produce, and the carbon footprint reduction is not as great as it’s made out to be. You have to spend energy putting fuel in the tractors, growing the crops, and harvesting the crops. That uses more land and lets off more emissions. The best way to make biodiesel is the way we do it. We don’t have to grow it, we just take garbage,” he said.
Despite what seems to be the growing popularity of vegetable-based biodiesel, critics argue the fuel is not suitable for cold temperatures.
“It could cause clogging problems during the winter season,” conceded Wong. He added that these problems can be avoided by using government-certified biodiesel approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Wong also recommended using a biodiesel-petroleum blend during the winter months, and only purchasing the fuel from quality manufacturers as opposed to those who brew it at home.
Entrepreneur Nicole Donnelly has been fueling her car with vegetable oil-based biodiesel for nearly three years. Her company, BabyLegs.com (an online store that specializes in leg warmers), also uses biodiesel to power its company truck. Donnelly said that she is a satisfied customer so far.
“It’s very clean in my car and for the environment, so I know that my car will last longer,” said Donnelly.
“I get better gas mileage and the earth is less impacted than with the alternatives out there,” she added.
She also joked that the fuel’s french fry aroma can be rather pleasant.
“Personally, I use biodiesel because it doesn’t smell bad, and it even sometimes smells good!” she said.
Time will tell whether the City of Seattle will decide to put its faith in this “green” fuel. In the meantime, Wong encourages his fellow Seattleites, especially Asian Americans, to get involved in the environmental movement, and to consider a career in the field.
“I think that [Asian Americans] should venture out, and try going for these high-risk [environmental] companies,” said Wong. “They can really make a difference in society.” ♦
Evangeline Cafe can be reached at email@example.com.