Biofuel Wars

A Girl called Mark
Maria Alovert aka Girl Mark

Josh Tickell vs Maria Alovert – with thanks to Maxim Online

In the blue corner: Josh Tickell, has been featured in these pages before. He’s a skinny, blond, motor-mouthed Louisianan who moved himself to L.A. in an RV painted with sunflowers and butterflies and powered by biodiesel, an alternative fuel source made primarily of vegetable oil that can be poured directly into diesel engines after it’s mixed with methanol and lye to separate out the glycerol, which isn’t good for engines. Biodiesel is based on materials grown, not mined, making it, in theory, sustainable, and thus, Tickell will gladly tell you, one step toward energy independence, clean air, and a shiny, happy planet free of wars for oil.

The trouble is, biodiesel isn’t available at the local filling station. If you want to scarf down some French fries and then drive your car home on the grease that made them crispy, you’ve gotta make it yourself.

In the red corner: Maria Alovert has not been written about here before, but we must be one of the few sites on the web to have forgotten to mention her. Alovert is also on a mission to promote bio-diesel, but she does it in a very different way to Rick Tickell, and that’s the cause of the problem.

0970722702-01-_scmzzzzzzz_-5942134From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel – Buy it from Amazon

Tickell got the idea on an East German farm. In Europe the stuff had been around for a century; Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the engine , was known to use various organic oils as fuel. The version he showed at the 1900 World Fair ran on peanut oil. While gas engines require spark plugs to ignite the fuel-air mixture, diesel engines use high pressure and heat enough pressure and heat to ignite biodiesel, which doesn’t combust as easily as gas.

Tickell’s book ushered in an Internet-based mini-mania that turned him into a full-time biodiesel crusader who travels the country in his Veggie Van, giving speeches to eager converts looking for new and cheaper ways to get their Jettas to Whole Foods. It’s kind of like being in charge of a combination political organization and religious movement, Tickell says.

At this point buying commercial biodiesel is near impossible, and it’s very expensive when you can find it. So proponents make it themselves – using buckets and rubber gloves.

Behind Tickell’s ramshackle Venice Beach bungalow stand two plastic vats connected by a tangle of plastic tubes and valves. It looks like a moonshine still, but it’s actually the FuelMeister, a do-it-yourself biodiesel maker invented and now marketed by a Silicon Valley exec turned biodiesel nut named Rudi Wiedemann. Once users have followed instructions to get the proportions of lye and methanol right, all ingredients are pumped into the FuelMeister’s main tank, where they’re mixed until the glycerol separates out and is drained from the bottom. Then the biodiesel is washed by a delicate spray of water and, voil, six hours later it’s ready for fueling via an attached gas pump

The FuelMeister retails for $3,000 and more than 200 have been sold, but Tickell is using it for the first time. Which is probably why, when he inserts a tube into one of the tubs of veggie oil and attempts to pump it up into the biggest of the FuelMeister vats, it instead pours out of the side, over one guys arms, and onto the pavement. One of the great things about biodiesel, Ketcham says, is that it’s biodegradable, so we’e not creating a toxic spill here.

Tickell has his fancy Web site (joshuatickell.com), set up in part to help him raise funds for a documentary he hopes to debut one day at Sundance.

That’s the sort of self-promotion that upsets Maria Alovert, a Berkeley activist who goes by the Internet name Girl Mark, and is the Web’s foremost proponent of what she calls home brewing. She believes Tickell stole many of his ideas from a 1994 film called Fat of the Land, which dealt, in part, with biodiesel. And while Tickell has allied himself with the FuelMeister and companies seeking large-scale commercialization (I want to see biodiesel at every gas station, he says), Alovert prefers sharing her secrets by converting new users over the Internet and plotting to grow the movement, um, organically. I consider it open source, she says, just like the way the Linux crowd spreads the software coding, letting anyone take it and make improvements. She’s happy to share recipes, blueprints, and anything else that helps a junkie get started on the grease.

Another area where the two activists differ is the price of their mini-refineries. Alovert’s homemade biodiesel kit uses an old water heater as the main component and costs about $200 to build from scratch. She doesn’t make any money off of it.

Alovert and Tickell have become bitter rivals. He dismisses her as a radical resisting progress, while she writes him off as a publicity whore doing injustice to the cause.

In fact, they are both wrong. Because they are both right — they are both on the same side and aiming at different audiences or “markets” .

If all waste vegetable oil and animal fat in the U.S. were turned into biodiesel, it would still barely cover 15 percent of our fuel needs but it is taking baby steps. All diesel sold in France is made up of five percent biodiesel. The state of Minnesota is on the verge of selling B2 diesel (thats two percent bio) at all stations. The U.S. government now offers a tax incentive to producers. And the big secret, Tickell says, is that Wal-Mart has tested B2 on its truck fleet. For obvious reasons, that’s not something this red-state-loving chain makes a big deal about but it shows that biodiesel is far more mainstream than patchouli oil.

Tickell warns that many new diesels don’t adapt well to biodiesel or straight vegetable oil. Really, only German diesels like Volkswagens and Mercedes have sturdy enough engines to work on the stuff long-term, which is probably the real knock on ditching gas. Sure, it’s great to do your part for progress, but not if you have to give up your ride.

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