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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 02:21 pm

The revolution will be motorized

Dayton Keyes and others pass on gas — and they’re saving more than a few bucks

Dayton Keyes makes his own biodiesel fuel. It’s his way of saving money and taking a stand against Big Oil and auto manufacturers.
With fuel prices hovering around $2.80 per gallon, it would cost Dayton Keyes about $8 to make the daily round-trip trek from his home in Maroa, near Bloomington, to his job in Springfield at the Capitol. But Keyes doesn’t use gasoline. Instead, he pays between $2.10 and $2.30 per day to run his diesel-engine car on waste vegetable oil that he converts into biodiesel in his garage. Biodiesel — made from organic fats and oils such as sunflower, canola, palm, and soybean — can be blended with petroleum diesel. The designation B20 means that a fuel is made from 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. After it’s processed, Keyes’ fuel is B100 — pure biodiesel. Boosters of this alternative fuel argue that biodiesel, unlike gas or regular diesel, which are fossil fuels, is renewable, burns cleaner, is better for engine longevity, and yields better gas mileage — plus it’s way, way cheaper than gas or regular diesel.
Keyes and a handful of others in central Illinois are participating in a movement that practitioners have dubbed the “biodiesel revolution.” Most folks just grumble about the price of gas and fill ’er up anyway, but these biodiesel revolutionaries are self-described environmentalists or patriots who say that they’re tired of being exploited by oil companies and automakers. “People in America need to wake up and realize they’re getting screwed,” Keyes says. For Keyes, who studied political science and history in college and has a brother who worked for NASA, science was mainly a hobby. He started tinkering with homemade biodiesel three years ago. However, when he took a job last year as a police investigator for the secretary of state, assigned to the Capitol complex in Springfield, he realized that driving his Chevy Avalanche back and forth every day wasn’t going to cut it. He needed a more fuel-efficient car. Initially Keyes looked for a diesel-powered American car, but he discovered that most U.S. automobile companies only sell these cars in Europe. Ford, for example, makes a European version of its compact Focus that runs on diesel and gets significantly higher gas mileage than the American model. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, requires a costly certificate of environmental conformity for any car not already sold in the United States.  So he bought a 2002 Volkswagen Golf instead. Keyes says that the diesel versions of American cars should be available here. Dr. David Hackleman, chair of the chemical-engineering department at Oregon State University and an expert on biodiesel, agrees. “I don’t understand why they don’t sell them here. It amazes me,” Hackleman says. “I’m a scientist and an engineer, but I don’t understand these [EPA] regulations.” OSU is using biodiesel for all of its diesel needs through its biodiesel initiative. It’s also one of five schools in the nation to participate in a program that awards grants to individuals such as Keyes for private research and development of biodiesel technologies. The one drawback to biodiesel, particularly in places such as the Midwest, Hackleman says, is that the fuel jells when the weather gets cold. Keyes says he learned that the hard way and now mixes an anti-jelling agent into his fuel. But on the whole, Hackleman says, “biodiesel is a very good fuel. Diesel engines get good gas mileage. Locomotives are all diesel — and there’s a reason for that.”
In 1895, Rudolph Diesel designed the engine that would bear his name to operate on peanut oil. After World War II, the diesel engine was modified to use petroleum diesel, but during the 1990s people started going back to Diesel’s “original biodiesel” engine. Now, it’s making a real comeback. According to the National Biodiesel Board, based in Jefferson City, Mo., sales of biodiesel increased by 73 million gallons between 2000 and 2005. However, it should be noted that according to this group, the official trade association for sellers of biodiesel, fuel made from raw vegetable oil is not registered with the EPA and is therefore not a legal motor fuel. Under federal law, individuals are allowed make as much as 400 gallons per quarter for their own consumption and may sell as much as 2,000 gallons for research and development without having to pay taxes on it. Each day, Keyes spends 15 minutes in his garage on various stages of the process used to turn used cooking grease into biodiesel. The result: 30 gallons of B100 — all the fuel he needs to power his car for a week. The setup instructions are simple — “easy as falling off a log,” Keyes says — and require space ranging from a kitchen countertop to more square footage, depending on the complexity of the apparatus. A variety of “recipes” are available on various Web sites. Keyes got most of the supplies he needed from Menard’s: a funnel, a flour sifter, some PVC piping, a few jugs, and a 50-gallon water heater. Then he bought a pair of 55-gallon drums from a guy he knew and a small pump similar to the ones found at gas stations. The whole setup cost him $800, he says, and he has backups for nearly all the parts. Next, Keyes says, he’ll build a portable tank in the bed of his pickup truck so that he can run on straight cooking oil, which he gets from a nearby restaurant for free. People who do this are called “greasers.” In the meantime, he’s writing a book and has a bunch of ideas to solve to solve the nation’s energy crisis and reduce the nation’s dependence on oil from the Middle East. For example, take the medians and areas along interstate highways, where the state of Illinois pays workers to cut grass during the summer months. That land, Keyes says, could be used to grow sunflowers, the oil from which could then be mass-processed into biodiesel.  “Why should we be shortsighted by selling short our future? Biodiesel is a reality today that provides hope for tomorrow.” Keyes says if the British and French can figure out energy alternatives, “so can we.” “We need to regain the American spirit that made this great nation.”
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