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Biodiesel adventurers in Vegas

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By Lee Einer

Three Japanese travelers stopped in Las Vegas on their way to Santa Fe and beyond last week.

The three, Satori Murata, Tatsuya Ito and Shusei Yamada, are traveling around the world in a Toyota Landcruiser powered by used vegetable oil and are chronicling their journey on a Website, www.biodieseladventure.com.

Their journey launched in Japan last December. They have since traveled through Canada and the western United States. The three plan on traveling through Texas and New Orleans before continuing to western Europe, Africa, Eastern Europe and back to Japan.

The original inspiration was Yamada’s. Yamada, a photographer, wanted to travel around the world, but wanted to do so in a way that was earth-friendly. At first, he considered making the journey on foot, but then he heard about biodiesel and decided to tour the world using biodiesel fuel.

Many diesel vehicles run on biodiesel. Most diesels require no modifications whatsoever. What makes the Landcruiser different is that this group had a miniature biodiesel refinery built right into the back of the vehicle, so that they can pick up a load of waste oil from a restaurant or other source and within hours have it processed into usable fuel for their journey.

The process of refining biodiesel begins with adding a mixture of methanol and potassium hydroxide to the oil, which splits the oil into biodiesel and glycerine. The glycerine is a waste product, and any residual methanol and potassium hydroxide must also be removed from the fuel before it is usable.

Typically, this is done by “washing” the biodiesel, combining it with water and agitating it, then draining off the water when it settles out. But the biodiesel adventurers will be driving through desert areas where no water can be had, so they had to use some innovative technology. The fuel mix is first separated with an on-board centrifuge and then run through column filters full of ionically charged resin beads. The beads attract glycerine, but let the biodiesel pass through. The fuel then runs through conventional filters before entering the fuel tank.

What happens to the glycerine? It runs into a container of earth impregnated with bacteria. The bacteria digest the glycerine, which at the end of the process can be used as a fertilizer.

Why go to all this trouble? Murata said it is a way for them to take responsibility for the energy they consume, and show other people how it can be done.

“If people control your energy, water and food, you are a slave,” Murata said. “But this is a way we can be more free.”