Bootstraps Biodiesel

Michael Buttrill runs a 15-acre farm in Renick, W. Va. on his homemade biodiesel fuel.

By Natalie Snyder and Tiffany Benson | 06/10/2013

Michael Buttrill has been producing approximately 50-100 gallons of biodiesel fuel per month for eight years to help run his organic farm and his vehicles.

Buttrill, his wife Caroline, and his daughter Luna live on their farm where they operate the local farmer’s market, grow organic crops and use biodiesel as a main source of fuel for their cars and tractor.

“We think about what we consume, whether it be fuel, food, any of the chain of consumer goods, and we try to make a responsible choice,” said Buttrill, who is a co-founder of the farmer’s market.

After earning a degree in Ecological Philosophy at New York University, Buttrill began to crave a more rural existence and began his career as a farmer. Buttrill completed a two-season apprenticeship in Congerville, IL on an organic farm.

The internship had a profound impact on Buttrill, who bought his own farm in Renick, outside of Lewisburg, in 2005. He claims his farming practices exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for organic production.

Buttrill heard about biodiesel fuel from The Gesundheit Institute in Pocahontas County, W.Va. It appealed to him because it offered a way to use renewable and biodegradable resources for energy, which was good for the environment. At the same time, using biodiesel fuel meant taking a stand against foreign policy with which he disagreed.

Biodiesel is a fuel produced from vegetable oil, sodium hydroxide and methanol, and it can be used in any diesel engine.

Producing the fuel is a dedicated process that requires time, knowledge and a method of collecting the correct materials and chemicals.

To begin producing his own, Buttrill had to learn about the types of oil he could use, the mixing and refining process and the safety procedures for working with the chemicals.

He uses a combination of peanut, soy and canola oils he retrieves from a local Chinese restaurant. It is a mutually beneficial relationship because the restaurant owners would otherwise have to pay to have the oil removed.

Buttrill said the right type of oil depends on the climate where the fuel is made. Living in Lewisburg, peanut and canola oil work best, but in a warmer climate access to palm oil and other tropical plants would be more appropriate.

Though Buttrill makes his own fuel, there are commercial companies that sell it throughout the United States, though there are none in West Virginia.

According to the U. S. Department of Energy, the United States has 319 biodiesel stations with blends of 20 percent (B20) and above. The percentage refers to the amount of biodiesel in the blend of fuel. Fuel is classified as “biodiesel” even if a substantial part of it is petroleum-based.

Drivers can purchase biodiesel fuel that is up to 100 percent pure. Fuels rated at B20 and above are the most common, but there are 520 more stations in the United States that provide blends lower than B20.

The U. S. Department of Energy states that as the percentage increases, harmful emissions decrease. While B100 produces the fewest emissions, using B20 can reduce tailpipe emissions of unburned hydrocarbons by 21 percent, carbon monoxide emissions by 11 percent and particulate matter by 10 percent. Compared to petroleum oil, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and causes fewer air pollutants. It also has a higher combustibility point at 150°C compared with about 52°C for petroleum diesel, making it safer to be around.

Buttrill’s lifestyle and the physical space on his farm give him the opportunity to produce the fuel himself. If he does not include his time and energy, but just factors in electricity and chemicals, Buttrill said he can make it for approximately $1.50 per gallon.

While biodiesel may be cost effective if it is homemade, with oil provided by an outside source, it is more expensive at a fueling station. For example, according to the Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Report for January 2013, regular gasoline is priced at an average of $3.29 per gallon, while biodiesel is $4.05.

Additionally, as the percentage of biodiesel increases the energy level decreases. This means that the purer the fuel is, the more will be needed to power a vehicle.

“Biodiesel actually contains less energy than petroleum diesel, but biodiesel is a lubricating fuel, so it’s good for an engine,” Buttrill said. “It runs smoother, quieter and more efficiently, so there’s a trade-off there.”

Another downside of the fuel is that the methanol used in biodiesel can degrade natural rubber components in some older vehicles. Natural rubber hoses or seals may need to be replaced often if the purer mixes of biodiesel are used regularly, but most newer vehicles no longer use natural rubber components.

A professor of Applied & Environmental Microbiology at West Virginia University, Dr. Alan Sexstone said that it is not practical for most people to produce their own biodiesel since it requires access to appropriate oils, chemicals and areas to produce. The majority of consumers get their biodiesel fuel from
local-production centers serving many individuals.

Sexstone has done extensive research into renewable energy where he hopes to find a better alternative fuel that will have the least negative impact on the environment.

For Buttrill, the closest station that offers biodiesel fuel is in Hillsville, Va. about 122 miles away from his farm.

One of the reasons for the lack of biodiesel stations in the state may be that there are no monetary incentives. There is a state tax incentive (the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Tax Credit) for the purchase or conversion of vehicles that run on alternative fuels including, natural gas, E85, propane, electricity, hydrogen, or coal-derived liquid fuels, but any diesel vehicle can use biodiesel fuel.

West Virginia does offer the Alternative Fuel School Bus Incentive making any county that uses alternative fuel for its buses eligible for a 10 percent reimbursement on operating costs from the West Virginia Department of Education.

Executive Director of the West Virginia Office of School Transportation Ben Shew, said that 42 counties were taking advantage of the incentive, however this bill does not include biodiesel as an alternative fuel. Currently the only approved fuel is Compressed Natural Gas. The incentive will be phased out all together over the next five years.

Most of the incentives for using biodiesel are environmental ones. For Buttrill, the satisfaction of being less dependent on foreign oil and reducing the amount of pollution he would otherwise cause is enough.

“It feels good to be able to put biodiesel fuel in my vehicle when I go on a trip, and I can say, ‘Hey, we got here on alternative fuel. We’re not just like everybody else.’” Buttrill said.

Buttrill’s website, includes more information about his organic agriculture initiatives.

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