Lowcountry Biodiesel: Plant to turn waste vegetable oil into fuel. By Chris Dixon

Saturday,June 17, 2006

Edition: FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1      

The Lowcountry's first biodiesel plant will be built in an unused warehouse on the former Navy base, creating a local source of nontoxic, low-cost fuel that can be used in nearly any diesel engine and marking a further advance in what's been a largely backyard industry in South Carolina.

While one biodiesel plant already is being operated in the Upstate by Carolina Biofuels, the North Charleston plant will be unique in that it will use waste vegetable oil from hundreds of area restaurants to eventually fill the tanks of school buses, automobiles, trucks and even shrimp boats.

The lease agreement was signed Thursday between the Noisette Co. and Charleston-based Southeast Biodiesel. Plant owner Dean Schmelter, who owns several chemical processing businesses throughout the Southeast, said the idea for the Noisette plant came about accidentally.

"Last summer I was talking to my diesel mechanic at Black Forest Imports in Mount Pleasant," he said. "I was complaining about the high cost of fuel, and he said, 'Well, you're a chemist. Do something about it.'"

Schmelter set up a small-scale operation at one of his Florida facilities. There, he perfected the process for making the fuel. He now runs his Mercedes turbo diesel on B100, or 100 biodiesel.

Rudolph Diesel, founder of the diesel engine, originally created his spark plug-free motor so that farmers could power their tractors with oil from plants they grew. Nearly any diesel engine built today will run on straight vegetable oil, but the fuel system must be modified to heat the oil so it flows smoothly. This process is unnecessary with biodiesel.

To make biodiesel, waste vegetable oil must be filtered and de-watered. It then goes through a process that utilizes methanol and lye to remove fats that could clog fuel injection systems. The process leaves behind the fuel and glycerin, a key ingredient in soap. "I like the EPA's line," said Schmelter, "It's more biodegradeable than sugar and less toxic than salt. It looks and smells just like the vegetable oil in your pantry."

Schmelter said he hopes to begin annual production this fall of about 2 million gallons, with an ability to ramp up with relative ease. The plant will employ about seven people initially and its fuel should cost about a dollar a gallon.

Fuel should begin to flow right around the time that the South Carolina has mandated that all the state's diesel engines, including notoriously pollution-belching school buses, begin operating on B20, a mix of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel.

Biodiesel provides a substantial emissions benefit whether used as B20 or B100. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, B100 produces 67 percent fewer unburned hydrocarbons, 48 percent less carbon monoxide and 47 percent less particulate matter. At a 20 percent mixture, the reductions are 20, 12 and 12 percent respectively.

The combustion of biodiesel also results in about 10 percent lower emissions of carbon dioxide or CO2 — a greenhouse gas. If vegetation used to make the fuel oil is replanted, then B100 produces almost no greenhouse emissions because plants take in CO2 and give off oxygen during photosynthesis.

James Peeler, a machine shop owner from Gray Court has been making biodiesel and working on a pilot program for school buses in his area.

"With oil from their school cafeterias and prisons, I can make biodiesel for $1.50 a gallon," he said, adding that he sees biodiesel as a means to keep Carolina farmers on their land and wean the United States off of foreign oil. This week, he used his homemade fuel to drive his Ford F-350 Diesel pickup truck and fifth-wheel recreational vehicle from Laurens to James Island for a family vacation. He said the truck runs better on biodiesel, and gets better mileage.

"I don't mind paying taxes, but I really don't like paying Exxon for fuel," he said. "When someone starts gouging my back pocket, I start looking for another way."

Like ethanol gasoline blends, which can be made from locally produced corn, biodiesel has been getting noticed by state politicians.

Last week, legislators passed a bill that includes tax credits for new ethanol or biodiesel facilities. Plants that begin operations between 2007 and 2009 will earn tax credits of 20 cents per gallon, and 25 percent on the cost of equipment and distribution. Additionally, purchasers of E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) or B20 will get a five-cent-per-gallon discount at the pump.

At the Noisette Co., project manager Jeff Baxter said that the new plant will mesh well with the nearby Fisher recycling plant and Noisette's overall ambition of creating a sustainable community by supplying a renewable fuel.

"You'll have the Dodge diesel Sprinter vans manufactured up here, along with the maritime industry and all the local trucking that can run on biodiesel," he said. "There are a lot of people here who could use this stuff."

Reach Chris Dixon at (843) 745-5855 or cdixon@postandcourier.com.