gamut (2006-17)

CLEAN FUEL LINE-UP: Soy biodiesel, virgin soy biodiesel and animal fat biodiesel (left to right).

"It feels to me like it’s coming to a head in East Tennessee.” Jonathan Overly gazes intensely out from under thick black eyebrows with this ambiguous, yet declarative opening line, as if he’s selling something. And in a way, he is. As director of East Tennessee Clean Fuels, Overly peddles an idea—one that just might help clean up our long-neglected air. Through his and his staff’s efforts, Overly’s organization has had a hand in the vast majority of biodiesel conversions in East Tennessee, from convincing many municipalities and industrial fleets to make the switch to the cleaner-burning fuel to rounding up his “Biodiesel Brigade” of individual consumers who proudly sport biodiesel magnets on their cars.

Indeed, the alternative fuels movement is gaining momentum. When even President Bush, who heads an administration that tends to bulldoze over most environmental concerns and that, for the most part, supports big oil interests, is claiming that America is “addicted to oil” in his State of the Union Address, the problem looks dire.

John Nolt, a UT philosophy professor and environmental activist questions and answers this irony in a recent Hellbender column, writing of the Bush administration’s about-face, “What gives? Iraq. That’s what gives…The oil war has not run according to plan.” He goes on to detail how, in Iraq’s post-election turmoil, the Bush administration’s hopes of regaining the Iraqi oil supply are looking more and more dismal. Paralleling the oil crisis with an actual drug addiction, Nolt suggests that even this administration is beginning to realize that the solution might not be in seeking out foreign oil and thus tapping that ragged vein, but in addressing our growing dependence on oil—perhaps the most powerful drug in America today.

Biodiesel and other alternative fuels may have begun as environmental efforts, and that cause certainly strikes a chord in Knoxville, which still has non-attainment status in EPA standards for clean air. But recently, it seems that, even more than environmental concerns, a growing disdain for foreign oil is motivating people to look into alternative fuel possibilities.

Whether that disdain is rooted in frustration over the seemingly endless war in Iraq or over high gas prices, which go hand-in-hand anyhow, the motivation is there. “It seems to me that we’re selling ourselves,” says Overly. “We’re making these other countries richer, and in some cases they’re doing ridiculous things with that money, like funding terrorism. And it’s all because we can’t get ourselves off this addiction.”

Though biodiesel’s certainly the front-runner, probably due to the fact that it requires no special equipment or conversions—just a plain old diesel engine can run on any level of biodiesel—there are a handful of biofuels out there, and more are being developed. Ethanol is another common fuel, and one Overly hopes to push in the coming year. While he estimates that 90 percent of biodiesel usage is in companies that run it in their fleets as opposed to individual consumers, ethanol consumption is the inverse. Because there are about 20 vehicles manufactured today that can use E85 and any vehicle can run on E10, there is a lot of personal use with ethanol, another clean-burning fuel made from corn. Flex Fuel Vehicles, or those that run on E85, include versions of Ford’s Explorer and Taurus, Chevy’s Impala and Silverado, and various vehicles from Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Isuzu, and Chrysler. Both E10 and E85 are available in Knoxville at various Pilot stations.

Overly calls electric powered vehicles the “niche-est” of the alternate fuel family, because they don’t fit most peoples’ needs and require recharging. However, the new police buggies you see lately (the ones that look like mini-spaceships), called Global Electric motorcars, run on electricity.

Propane and natural gas are also alternatives, though they’re not commonly used for transportation in Tennessee. “All of them have their pros and cons,” says Overly. “None of them is the silver bullet, but they are a start.”

The increasingly popular hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, are another alternative. They still run on petroleum, but are designed to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. Thus, they play a role in companies’ meeting national fuel economy standards. If they sell so many hybrids, it balances out the gas-guzzling SUVs that continue to sell, despite gas prices.

While those standards could be tightened even more in effort to diminish SUV propagation, the government’s regulations on its own branch organizations are making great headway. Overly credits those regulations as the motivator of much biodiesel usage among municipalities and companies in East Tennessee.

East Tennessee Clean Fuels began with two goals. The main thrust at the outset was to improve our notoriously polluted local air. Later, with gas prices soaring in the past year, combating foreign oil dependency became a priority. “That has really become my biggest personal concern,” says Overly. “Our foreign oil dependency is so dire, we have to do what we can do now. We can’t wait for the prize at the end of the tunnel, which may be hydrogen fuel, but that may be 20 years before it’s available. We just can’t put all our eggs in the hydrogen basket now.”

Overly estimates that there are about 4,000 vehicles running on some sort of biofuel in East Tennessee today, half of them fleets and half personal vehicles. Fuel consumption, however, is much heavier on the fleet side.

Many fleets are municipalities and government operations, such as KAT, KUB, Alcoa Inc., and the University of Tennessee. KAT began its clean fuels program in 2003 with a fleet of propane buses, later adding a biodiesel fleet in 2004. “The emphasis for us was on being a leader in terms of air quality,” says Bobby Schieder, KAT’s chief operating officer. “People tend to look at public transit as the forbearers of reducing single-occupancy vehicle use, so by using clean fuels you’re just reducing pollution even more.”

When gas prices spiked this winter, KAT saw a significant increase in ridership, proving that even a car-dependent city like ours does have a breaking point. “At what point do people put down their car keys and seek public transport as an option?” wonders Schnieder. “When gas prices hit three dollars, that started to happen, and people began to see that buses can meet their needs.”

While most government fleets are taking to biofuels in efforts to meet with the EPA’s air quality standards, privately owned companies have their own reasons for making the switch.

Gassing up at McNutt Oil in Blount County are two drivers for MDM Trucking, a company based nearby. Allen Mincy, a lean man with a camouflage ballcap, is pumping about 30 percent biodiesel into his tank. He says he likes the biodiesel because the exhaust doesn’t smoke as much as pure diesel. His stockier co-worker Joe Hylwa flashes a cock-eyed smile as he says, “Plus, it smells pretty. In the summertime, when we run 50 percent, it smells like popcorn.” On a more serious note, he adds, “It’s also helping out the farmers—helping people around here make money.”

Technically, McNutt gets its biodiesel from a company in Cincinnati, Ohio, but Hylwa’s correct when it comes to bringing business to American farmers, because much of it is made from domestic soybeans.

Back inside the McNutt plant, owner Pete Gale produces several vials of different types of biofuel. What he calls “virgin soy oil” is perfectly clear. The vial containing fuel made from recycled grease—often from restaurant waste—has a light yellow tint, the color of everyday vegetable oil. Finally, there’s fuel made from animal fat, which has a darker yellow, urine-colored hue.

While many people immediately think of veggie oil (or SVO, straight vegetable oil) when they hear “biodiesel,” it’s possible, but more difficult to run on than processed oil. Essentially, the engine must be converted so that it heats the veggie oil to a less viscous consistency before it can power the car. The method is attractive, though, because it’s conceivable to take waste that’s headed for the dump, McDonald’s grease for example, and use it as a clean-burning fuel, directly converting waste into energy. Further, there’s no diesel mixed in, as there is with processed biodiesel.

Interestingly, when Rudolph Diesel invented his engine in 1892, he intended to run it on pure peanut oil, but when petroleum became available, it was cheaper and more energy dense, so it became the main fuel source.

At McNutt, customers can mix their own blends, anywhere from 20 to 100 percent biodiesel. But the higher percentage of biodiesel, the more likely it is to gel in colder temperatures, which causes problems. So most users prefer a higher blend in the summer and a lower one in the winter. Gale says the same gelling problem is more common in animal fat and recycled grease biofuels, which is why he prefers the soy product.

Considering the benefits of biodiesel, one might pose the question of why all trucking companies that are already equipped with diesel engines haven’t made the switch. “The cost can be a deterrent,” says Gale. “Ours is a business where cost is a big factor. People look at partial cents, so when you’re trying to talk someone into a couple cents’ difference, it’s quite a feat.” Right now, biodiesel is about two or three cents higher per gallon than regular. But Gale recalls many people trying out biodiesel during hurricane Katrina, when diesel prices soared above the domestically-produced biodiesel. That statistic might be grounds for a government-incentive program, if this administration is serious about decreasing foreign oil dependency.

The truckers who do run on biodiesel, Gale says, are primarily concerned with putting small farms back in business. “The truckers are taking to it because they’re a pretty pro-America bunch.”

Likewise, many farmers themselves would like to use biodiesel to run farm equipment, but currently there is a legal glitch standing in the way. Because fuel for on-road vehicles is taxed to cover road repairs, off-road fuel like that sold at the Blount-Greenback Farmers Co-op down the road, is colored with a red dye that alerts IRS inspectors of its class. Essentially, that red-dyed fuel is cheaper for farmers, and biodiesel isn’t made specifically for off-road vehicles, so they can’t get their tax-break and use biodiesel. Presumably, Gale says they could dye the fuel onsite but, he says, “Right now, we don’t have a spare pump to do that.”

In Knoxville proper, there are two public stations with B20; both are Regal Fuels outlets, one on Proctor Street and one at Forks of the River. Owner Scott Smith says the company is looking to open up shop in West Knoxville soon. “We’re selling more and more biodiesel every day,” he says. “Of course not as much as our retail [they supply organizations like TDOT], but it is diesel, so it’s always going to be a limited public need.” Regal also imports 100 percent soy diesel from companies in the West. Smith cites two reasons for jumping on the biodiesel wagon: “We’re in the business to sell, and we saw a market for this, but it’s also good for the environment.”

Such rationale is behind the innovation of many small businesses these days. A proud member of Overly’s “Biodiesel Brigade,” middle Tennessean Rodney Boyd, has been using biodiesel in his cars for nearly five years. Then one day he got the idea to use the fuel in his business, McMinnville Electric, which is a “peaking plant,” producing power and selling it to TVA. Boyd runs his generator, which he says looks like a big locomotive engine, on 100 percent soy biodiesel. So far the machine has logged 230 hours with no problems. “We’ve really been able to reduce our pollutants, namely NOX, Nitrous Oxide,” he says. “When you look at the exhaust pipe now, the engine is so clean you can’t even tell it’s in use.” Oddly enough, and perhaps because it’s such an anomaly that there’s no classification for it, TVA doesn’t consider Boyd’s product “green power,” so he just sells it back to them as regular energy.

Boyd’s a patriotic type, and he gets his biodiesel from soybeans grown in Tennessee. “Biodiesel may not be the answer to our energy crisis, but it’s an answer,” he says. “I’ve never seen a soldier guarding a soybean field. And think of all the farmers we’d be putting back to work.”

While current biofuel technology is certainly a step in the right direction, many predict that the future of alternate fuels lies in hydrogen. Wayne Davis, assistant dean of UT’s College of Engineering, is at the forefront of East Tennessee’s hydrogen research, in a collaborative project with UT Chattanooga. “Hydrogen is the technology of the future because it’s truly a clean fuel,” he says. “Gasoline comes from oil, mostly foreign oil, and we would like to see that decrease.”

Davis points out that most of America’s energy comes from domestic sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear fission and others. “But when it comes to fuel for transportation, we’re way off kilter. We’re about 60 percent dependent on foreign oil, and that’s a major security concern.”

Hydrogen can’t even technically be considered a “fuel,” as it’s a gas that must be made. Davis produces photos from a recent conference in California, illustrating hydrogen vehicles that are filled up with hydrogen pumps that look like plain air pumps.

There are two types of hydrogen vehicles. The Hydro Internal Combustion Engine (HICE) features a regular car engine converted to run on compressed hydrogen, which is brought into the engine and exposed to oxygen—a chemical reaction that produces energy. While there is a bi-product of water and trace nitrogen, there is no particulate matter.

While HICE vehicles are viewed as the “intermediate hydrogen option, fuel cell vehicles promise to be the wave of the future. It has no engine, only a fuel cell where the hydrogen/oxygen reaction takes place, producing electricity that turns the wheels. Clearly, it’s a revolutionary idea, and is still far-off, realistically-speaking.

One could run on a tank of compressed hydrogen for 100 to 150 miles, so it would be currently impossible to drive cross-country on hydrogen. However, there are several “hydrogen highways,” or chains of hydrogen stations in Florida, California and New York.

The East Tennessee initiative has secured land near McGhee-Tyson airport to install a model hydrogen station to be used first for demonstration and, hopefully, to supply the airport’s ground vehicles with hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be produced several ways, but the most common is through electrolysis, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen in water. The process takes electricity, but if that comes from a green power source, like wind, solar or nuclear, the result is literally a pollution-free fuel.

“A big part of our goal is to be technologically-advanced to the point where East Tennessee will be ready to capitalize on a hydrogen economy,” says Davis. “The idea is not to remove service stations. We are a mobile society, and this idea never actually replaces infrastructure, because you are going to run out of the hydrogen you produce in your basement. We want to develop an infrastructure where hydrogen is produced locally, from a plant where electricity is produced through green power.”

Sound like the future? The idea that you could fill your car with a clean gas, produced locally, through clean power, is 10 times as exciting as any gadget ever imagined on The Jetsons . Whether the idea becomes a reality may hinge on the federal administration’s commitment to reducing dependency on foreign oil. Scientific research, after all, depends on government funding.

Even with government support, though, hydrogen fuel is still a long way off. In the meantime, biodiesel and other biofuels present progressive alternatives. And, of course, there’s always that bike sitting in the garage.

To learn more about biofuels, tune into the radio program “Alternative Fuels Today,” which airs on Saturdays from 4-5 pm on the Horne Radio (a collection of AM stations in the area:  850 WKVL - Knoxville; 1140 WLOD - Loudon; 1290 WATO - Oak Ridge; 1400 WGAP - Maryville).