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In Marketplace

The Biodiesel Co-op runs its own biodiesel tank on solar power in the back yard of Future Green. (PHOTO: Jason Haas)

In Marketplace

The tank used to hold petrol oil and needed to be drained and cleaned before putting the golden biodiesel in. (PHOTO: Jason Haas)

In Marketplace

Kyle Capizzi fills five-gallon totes with biofuel at Future Green. (PHOTO: Jason Haas)

Milwaukee Biodiesel Co-op opens at Future Green


With gas prices leaping and bounding and global warming heating up as a prominent political issue, it's no wonder more and more people are ditching their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Some hail the hybrid car as a possible answer to our environmental crisis. Others, like Milwaukee's Jason Hass, remain fuel focused. Haas has been running his Volkswagen Jetta TDI (Turbocharged Direct Injection) on biodiesel for almost two years now, and he's hardly alone. Still, the idea of putting vegetable oil into a gas tank is, for most people, slightly mystifying.

"Many people have heard of biodiesel; they think it's something good, but they're not quite sure exactly what it is," says Haas.

Here's the short answer: Biodiesel is a renewable, environmentally safe energy source produced from agricultural products, rather than petroleum. It's made from soybeans, canola oil, sunflowers or fryer grease and can be used in any diesel engine.

For a more in-depth look at the alternative fuel and how some Milwaukeeans are using it, the grand opening of the Milwaukee Biodiesel Co-op this Saturday promises a bevy of information on the issue.

The co-op's president, Swee Sim, co-owns Future Green, a self-sustaining, organic living retail store at 2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bay View. Utilizing the shop as headquarters, it is here that the seven board members -- all biodiesel users -- have met for the past year with virtually one major goal in mind: provide a local source of commercial-grade biodiesel to Milwaukeeans.

"It was not easy to procure the stuff," says Hass, a co-op board member. "It was never readily accessible in Milwaukee -- people drove to Madison to a co-op called PrairieFire BioFuels where they sell it at the pump. But that's all about to change."

Sim's idea for the co-op came after a lot of reading and some serious hands-on experience. Two years ago he started homebrewing fuel in the basement of his store by using old grease he picked up from a friend's Chinese restaurant.

"Store customers were intrigued that fuel can be derived from old grease, and they started to regularly to help me make biodiesel. After a few months we bought a diesel Benz and started to test the fuel that we made. The rest is history -- we have been running on biodiesel ever since."

The Milwaukee biodiesel Co-op does not make its own biodiesel on site -- it is shipped in from a refinery in Lake Geneva -- but, thanks to board member Marshall Nickelson, it is able to re-sell it to customers at cost. Marshall, a Milwaukee diesel mechanic, donated a 20 gallon per minute fuel pump, which Sim now runs on solar energy from panels he installed on the roof of Future Green. There is enough leftover energy to run the lights in the shop's bathroom.

Due to space limitations, customers are not able to drive their cars up to the biodiesel tank as they would at a gas station, but they are, however, welcome to fill up as many five-gallon fuel totes as they wish. This is Milwaukee's only commercial grade, ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) certified biodiesel pump, which achieves one-third of the co-op's mission.

"A long term goal of ours is to have a gas station, but instead of selling gasoline, we'd sell biofuel," says Haas. "Part of the licensing for gas stations requires an underground fuel tank, but the good part about biofuel is that it's non-toxic and biodegradable, so you can have it above ground and not worry about it contaminating anything. If it leaks, you wait a month and it degrades into fats."

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Talkbacks

Reader | July 28, 2007 at 1:15 p.m. (report)

Seems the Journal read this story and did one of their own a few days after you: http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=639153 Good story all around.

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danno | July 26, 2007 at 10:17 a.m. (report)

It is not being negative. It is being critical and practical. Corn/Soy-based ethanol is a joke. It takes way too much land and resources and drives up food prices plus the US gov't is subsidizing an oligarch to produce it at a loss to taxpayers. Having many sources of power will complicate distribution of the "fuel". Most scientists see the future being crop-byproduct cellulose generated ethanol. But the the final solution is fusion nuclear generating cheap electricity. However nuclear fusion is probably at least 30-50 years away.

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haaz | July 25, 2007 at 5:58 p.m. (report)

Grease! We're interested in it. Come on by on the 28th, or write us at info_@_mkebio.org. Minus the underscores, of course.

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EastSlider | July 25, 2007 at 4:46 p.m. (report)

Just think of all that peanut oil that people like me bought for those backyard turkey friers, using the oil once and now wondering what to do with a 10-gallon jug of the stuff. Any of you biodeisel drivers want it? (By the way, the turkey was fantastic and cooked in just 50 minutes. My wife just can't get past the idea of eating something cooked in all that oil.)

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haaz | July 25, 2007 at 3:26 p.m. (report)

I must correct myself, the subject of the interview. When biodiesel decays, it does not become "fats." The biodiesel refining process turns fats into biodiesel. Decay does not turn biodiesel back into plant fats, but into more basic mocules. Either way, the biodiesel molecules too break down in nature, and do not kill things, which is more than gas or petrol diesel can say.

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