Appleseed Biodiesel Update

Processor and Settling Tank

Processor and Settling Tank

Super busy day running around gathering up parts for the processor, but significant progress was made.  With the exception of a 55 gallon steel drum (open top) for the drying tank and misc. iron pipe all the major components are on hand or en route!  The pic on right is the used 58 gallon electric water heater that I scored for $50 on Craigslist.  Not sure how much sediment is inside it, but the outside looks to be in decent shape.  That size will let me do 40 gallon batches which is sweet.  To its right is my major coup of the weekend.  It is an 80 gallon welded well tank.  The steel is significantly thicker than a steel drum so it will weld nicer and it is already plumbed with most of the threaded holes I need.  Best of all it has a drain in the coned bottom so it will drain 100% clean.  I will need to add a vent hole to the top and probably one to the side, but it is very close to done.  The well tank retailed for $280, but whoever special ordered it at Menard’s apparently backed out.  I have been eyeing it on the clearance rack for a month where it sat for $75.  Sunday I grabbed the plumbing manager and offered $50 to “take it off his hands”.  Sold!  It would make an incredible processor with its cone bottom (good for draining off glycerin), but until I figure out how to add heat cheaply it will be a settling tank for the WVO.  WVO left to sit for 3-4 weeks is significantly easier to process and dry as all the junk settles to the bottom.  The yellow can is me just being optimistic 😉



Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

I have been scouring the region for plastic barrels and steel drums, and finally I was able to get my hands on 3 white (so you can see how full they are) plastic barrels for $20 each.  Best of all I was able to fit all 3 into the golf in one trip!!  The cubic feet available in that hatch is flipping unreal.  One drum will be a washing tank for the processed Biodiesel, one will be used to store finished BD, and the final one will be an additional storage tank for WVO as it ages.  This will give me the ability to have WVO on site that is “new” and another tank (likely the well tank) that is ready to go.  Nice.

Also in the pic is the 1″ “clear water” pump from Harbor Frieght.  These little pumps are almost legendary for their utility and bulletproof history.  While typically $40 -already a steal, my good luck continued as this was their display model and they had it 50% off!  This pump will be used to move fluids all around the system- from the settling tank to the processor, for mixing the WVO into BD, for transferring the BD into the wash tank where it will also do the washing, and then finally it should be able to pump the clean diesel into the storage tank.  To have one pump do all that, you need ALOT of valves.  I picked up 5 3/4″ brass valves at Farm and Fleet today for $5.50 each.  Very close to completing the gathering phase, soon it will be time to assemble!

Total outlay so far is $275 with around $100 to go -all this for a kit that can make 2500 gallons of fuel per year.  Unbelievable.  With another $100 invested for more washing and settling tanks the kit can do 12,000+ gallons per annum -a batch a day.  Sourcing feedstock for that would be a chore though.

Hopefully the 15 gallon carboys I found on eBay will get here soon so I can start gathering WVO -if so I will be on track for my 10/31 deadline!  


Bio-Diesel Processor Update

With my new2me 2000 Golf TDI parked in the drive I am continuing to ramp up sourcing the parts needed for making an Appleseed Biodiesel Processor.  Last week I was able to pick up a 58 gallon water heater on Craigs list for $50, and this weekend I got 4 15 gallon plastic carboys off of eBay for $33 each.  That is 20% off of new and lets me check another piece of the system into the “used” category.  Here is the likely price breakdown:


1 Water Heater:                    $50

4 15 gallon carboy’s             $125


2 Steel Drums   ($0-50 each)

2 Plastic Drums ($0-20 each)

2 5gln Carboys ($6 each)

1 1/2 hp water pump ($35)

5 3/4″ valves     $8/each

Misc. plumbing   $30

Steel angle iron for stands    $0-20

Kerosene Burner (optional) $80

Total outlay:  $600ish

Even buying everything with the optional carboys and burners!  The kerosene burner will let me heat/dry the biodiesel using biodiesel (less than .25 gallons per batch of 40 gallons) and the 15 gallon carboys will make sourcing the Waste Veggie Oil (WVO) much easier as they are sized to be able to be picked up.  

This set up will let me make a batch a week, or 2500 gallons annually which is 400% more than I need.  Pricing of methanol drives my final price, but it looks like final product will be about $1.50/gallon vs. $4.05.  Payback will occur at about 200 gallons, or 4 batches.  Nice.  I only use about 30 gallons a month so figure 6 months of time or, what, about a 100% APR on my investment not factoring time.  I’ll take it.

After I have the process worked out so that I can make good fuel consistently, I would like to begin switching from methanol to ethanol as the catalyst.  Methanol is sourced from natural gas, and is much more toxic than ethanol.  In the end I would like to grow an oil crop like canola or sunflowers, press the oil out using a screw press and make BD out of the oil.   the left over seed cake can then be processed into ethanol, with the left overs there either feeding livestock or going into a methanol digester.  This system can work, though I am not aware of a setup that interconnects them in such an intergrated permaculture way.  So that is for 2009!


Camping, Golf’s, Appleseeds, & Terra Preta

The past two weeks have been insane.  First we ran out to SW MN to nab our newest vehicle and less than a week later I delivered my beloved Honda Insight to its new owner (not so bad as he is the farmer that loans me all the land for my projects).  Then Labor Day weekend we took a whirlwind trip back to SW MN to visit my in-laws and take the first camping trip with our little’uns at Blue Mounds State Park.  The State Park was much cooler than I expected.  The “mound” is a large bluff with exposed Quartzite and houses the only public Bison herd in MN -though they are fenced in which was a buzzkill.  It was great to make smores with the kids and begin teaching my kids how to tend fires.  So many cool things-a pair of Katydids took up residence under our rainfly and serenaded us each night; the kids were able to watch bats on the hunt, and I was able to hike 5 contiguous miles through restored prairie in full late summer bloom. The Golf TDI got 52 mpg on the way out and 51 on the way back with the cruise at 70 mph.  Nice. 

Market Garden

With stress levels high from overextending all year, we have put all fall market garden plans on hold.  As crops come down we are putting them in covercrop, and taking time off until I plant the hoop house to spinach and mache in 3 weeks.  I am trying a annual only cover crop on one plot to see how it preforms.  Thrown in are Wasaba Oats, Japanese Buckwheat, Oilseed Radish, and Yellow Field Peas.  The oats are for straw biomass, the buckwheat is for quick cover, the radish is pure experiment as I have never grown it and want to see it in action -hope is for decent below ground biomass, and the peas are for nitrogen.  All will kill at zero degrees to leave a nice mat of mulch for the spring crops.


This is where my heart and mind are at right now.  Tons of time online researching this and a couple of books from Chelsea Green on the way as well.  After looking into most of the “turn key” systems out there -most of which run over $3000, I have decided on a processor that is based on the Appleseed Biodiesel Processor. The Appleseed is essentially an open source project of backyard handy men/women working together to find a workable and safe solution.  The design they have come up with is uber simple and can be made out of reused junk if need be (sounds like our gasifier!), but even sourcing everything new will cost under $5-700 for system that can easily do 2000+ gallons of biodiesel a year.    As my goal is to have one up and running by Halloween/Samhain, expect alot more posts on this in the coming months as my focus switches off of farming for the season.

Terra Preta

A year or so ago I was introduced to terra preta and it blew my mind.  As I got more interested in our gasifier project we realized we would have a ready source of biochar and could actually start to make terra preta nuevo here in Wisconsin.  When my brain is melted from reading about and designing biodiesel processors I am pouring over Cornell research papers on this subject. Again, look for more in depth posts on this.  Adding DEEP fertility while sequestering carbon from a system that can heat and power a building -count me in!

The End Goal is to build an “Energy Shed” that will house a gasifier whose waste heat and electricity are powering bio-diesel and ethanol processors, and the waste products from these operations will the heat and power a multi use greenhouse growing greens and veggies and housing tanks of Tilapia for protein that will be fed off the mash from the ethanol still.  Waste from the fish will then be turned back into the fields as fertilizer to complete the cycle.  Permaculture in action!  

This one may take years, but to quote Ghostbusters: “We have the tools… we have the talent”

Be the Change!


Gone Bio Diesel Crazy

We are heading out tomorrow morning to grab the Golf.  Spent much of the weekend first researching VW tuning (Friday) and the boning up on Bio Diesel Processing.  Here is some of my findings

VW Tuning

The MK IV cars (1999.5-2004) come into the world with 90hp/155lb ft torque.  They also make a routine of going 700+ miles on their 14.5 gallon tanks (45-48mpg).   They also come very well equipped 4 wheel disc brakes, side curtain air bags, and lots of luxury items in the GLS models.  The mileage is great, but I need a bit more power to tow my barrels.  Luckily the tuner community has lots of answers.

  • Fuel Nozzles.  Upgrading these to “Euro” spec injectors nets 10-15hp and 20#’s of torque.  No loss of mileage if you keep out of the turbo
  • “Chip” tuning will clean up the fuel map and bump the boost up a bit to 18.5psi max.  This get you another 10hp and real close to 200#/ft of torque.
  • 2.5″ Down Pipe and performance cat and remove the muffle (diesels are quiet) gets you a broader power band (turbo spools 300rpm’s sooner), a handful of ponies/torque, but more importantly let the turbo breather better and lowers your Exhaust Gas Temps (EGT’s) by several hundred degrees (reduces stress on engine components/oil).  This one is optional and will only get done if I see my EGTs going up on towing runs.
  • There are many drivers with these mods in the “800 Club”: 800 miles on one tank  That’s 55mpg in  vehicle that can tow 2000#’s while seating 4 adults in 5star safety.  Nice.

Bio Diesel

I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of making it here.  A staggering amount of info can be found on Journey to Forever’s bio fuels pages which is where I have spent several hours this weekend as I huddled indoors to avoid the ragweed pollen until my allergy medicine could catch up.  I am convinced that we will be going Bio Diesel and not WVO at this point – our Subaru may very well get traded in for a ’09 Sport Wagon Jetta, and one BD processor can handle multiple vehicles if it is sized right.  Progress so far:

  • First contact at our local China Buffet -permission granted to salvage their grease!
  • Spoke to my farmer friend and he is willing to donate space for a Processor-I am not willing to have 99.5% pure Lye and Sulfuric Acid within reach of the kiddos.   Our discussion grew into making an “Energy Shed” to house a gasifier, Bio Diesel Processor, and an Ethanol Still.  Huh.
  • Emailed out to several Craigs listers with various Processor Bits for sale -mostly large drums, pumps, etc.  Looks like a 50 gallon sized still can be made for under $1000.  That is big enough for 2500 gallons a year or so.  That would be 112,000 TDI miles so there is room for 3-4 more in the project, or more likely I only run it once a month.

Time will tell where this goes.  I would be happy making 5-10 gallons weekly, but it seems that the effort is about the roughly same if you make 1 gallon or 40.  If I proceed, it will likely be with a 5 gallon mini processor to get the feel of it, and then maybe ramp up to a 50 gallon processor if it seems doable.  Price for BD home brew seems to be in the $1 range these days -driven mostly by the price of methanol which I still need to find a local supplier for.
Much of this was mulled over while harvesting (and selling!) my 900th pound of potatoes.  Still 3-500 pounds left!


End of an Era

3 years ago I bought my beloved Honda Insight… a 2001 5spd with 54k miles on it. I have absolutely adored that car -it was literally the only car that could have broken by affair with Big Speed and my modified 330hp Mitsubishi EVO 8 race car. The Insight was everything I wanted -wicked huge mileage -peaking as high as 102.2, rolling poster child for “a Better Way”, and a nice slice of minimalism in a life that is not yet bike friendly. But in the past year our need for a second car that can either tow a trailer for our Eco LLC business or have a backseat for the kids has increased as our little uns begin to get Involved: swim and ballet lessons, sports, play dates, etc. Out here in the rural suburbia seemingly everything, be it groceries or a pool, is 10 miles away. So we began to look at options.

4 Months ago I was completed smitten with Plug In Priuses. Sure the $30k buy in ($20k + $10k conversion) was uber steep, but I had a plan to sell 160 rain barrels in the next two years to cover at least the cost of the conversion. Then oil hit $140+ and inflation crested 5%. That Prius became $35k as used hybrids appreciated and we struggled mightly to sell our first load of rain barrels as America (finally!) tighten her belt. We’ve sold most of the barrels, but just barely and selling another 100 is not likely since the majority went to one buyer.

But we still need a high mileage 4 seat car.  So 3 weeks ago I began to look very seriously for a used VW TDI.  There were never a ton of these on the road (thought the 2006+ are MUCH more common!) and they are also in demand.  Prices are ranging from 10-30% above Kelly’s Blue Book -and most buyers are flying in to get them and driving them 3 states home.  I had 4 semi local cars slip through my fingers -even calling within an hour of the ad posting is not enough to get these.   Then just this week I found my new car. I had email Mia my “Dream Ad” and don’t you know it, I came home from work to find a  new Ebay listing that matched it perfectly.  Its a 2000 Golf TDI GLS 5spd with about 110k miles on it.  I am as vain as the next guy so I wanted it loaded -moonroof, premium sound, and heated seats (these little diesels take like 20 miles to heat up in the winter) and I found it on Ebay.    4 doors, super clean, and I bought it for $4k less than I am selling my Insight for so the budget is uber happy.  Its in MN so I am bumming a ride with family on their return trip to South Dakota this weekend.

More on why I bought a TDI -this paragraph gets more than a little Car Guy.  Most guys driving them are getting 42-48mpg every single tank -and the hypermilers are getting 60mpg!  Second, they can be turned into nice little tow vehicles.  In Europe these engines have about 20 more hp -and the only part change is larger fuel injection nozzles-about $300.  You can also add a “chip” that remaps some of the boost parameters for the turbo and get another 10-15hp.  More importantly you can also get another 80 ft/lbs of torque making the Golf a better tow vehicle than our Forester.  Open up the exhaust with a bigger down pipe off the turbo and you can keep your Exhaust Gas Temps down too and add a few more ponies.  Here is the kicker -there are many guys with these mods still getting over 50mpg every single tank.  You only use the extra fuel and boost of the mods if you push the engine hard while accelerating/towing. Even still, I have yet to see anyone on the forums at TDI CLUB getting under 40mpg in a modded 5spd.   Nice.

Are hybrids more efficient?  You bet.  But they can’t tow, cost over twice as much, and I can’t make my own fuel in a pinch.  I am very happy with my decision and will likely start doing some home bio-diesel processing using Journey to Forever’s 5 gallon “Test” kit this Fall.  Making 5 gallons a week actually would cut my Dino Fuel use 100 gallons anually over a standard Prius.  I have already found a source for grease, just need to build the kit. In my “spare” time.

Very sad to see my beloved Insight going away, but also excited for the future!


Sunflower Powered Tilling: Sunny Fuel Part Duex

I love sunflowers.  The incredible amount of sheer LIFE that they put forth in a season is awe inspiring.  Watch a Mongolian Giant grow in less than 4 months to the same 14′ height it takes 70-80 months for even a fast tree and you get a feel for what I mean.  Plus they are gorgeous, attract lots of benifical bugs and feed the birds in their critical late season fuel up for their migrations.

But I have a wicked strong practical streak (in case you haven’t noticed) so I look for other things ways that plants can  help out on the farm.  And Sunflowers function stack in spades!  Whether it is turning Sunchokes into Ethanol, or growing annual Sunflowers for their oily seeds you can fuel your farm with them!  With my latest craze being a diesel mini-tractor I have veggie oil (straight vegetable oil i.e. SVO) and bio diesel on the brain.  In the last several posts I said I could grow sunflowers to fuel the tractor.  That is not entirely true.  Well, actually it is, but it isn’t nearly as easy I had thought.  I spent several hours today reading much of Journey to Forever’s freaky informative pages on SVO, Biodiesel, and everything in between.  When I need to answer a sustainability question I either go to ATTRA of JTF and they have almost never failed to steer me right.

There is a strong mis-perception out there, that I had subscribed too, that you can take vegetable oil and run your diesel on it.  And you can, but it needs to be really warm out and you must have an engine built for it (like the original diesels).  Today’s engines are designed to run on refined low sulfur diesel, which has a much lower viscosity and better burn than SVO, but also makes them perfectly compliant for biodiesel.  You can modify a diesel to run on SVO, but it takes alot of stuff like secondary fuel tanks, built in fuel heaters, modified injectors, etc and it won’t really work on an air cooled walk behind tractor.

So I can’t just take sunflowers and  squeeze the seeds into the tank without killing my un-killable tractor.  I have known that making biodiesel is, well, if not easy then certainly not hard… especially given the fact that my eco peer group here in Jefferson County just built a machine to turn woodchips into hydrogen/methane gas to run a 65hp “Straight 6” (pics to come once we hook the engine up in April!).   When you first read about making biodiesel it can seem really damn scary.  Words like Methanol, Potasium Hydroxide, “causitc burns”, “poisonous fumes”, etc can turn you off real quick.  But then you dig a little deeper and you learn that Methanol is basically Kingsford lighter fuel, Potasium Hydroxide is just lye and used as draincleaner and the same warnings are found in the same chemicals that many of us used to keep under our bathroom sinks.  It isn’t that bad, it just needs a marketing department.

The chemistry is not that complicated, but the set up looks a bit involved I admit.  However, I really like JTF’s 5 gallon mini batch set-up as it would make a 1-2 year supply, or enough to help fuel several of my friends TDI’s if I used it every month or so.  It seems to be about the right size and within the relm of talent that I have surrounded myself with.

Back to the sunflowers.  So how much can I expect to get?  JFT’s sources claim 102 gallons of oil per acre.  That is alot of oil from the sunflowers, and the left over mash makes good chicken/pig feed and you still have those 14′ stalks for mulch!  I certainly have the available land to grow a .25 acre stand, and I would just need to fab up a home oil press.  Again not too hard if you have access to a machine shop, a welder, or if no one else will help, the A-Team… if you can find them.

The final thing that had me concerned about all this is the glycern/methanol/lye stew that you are left with after you get your biodiesel. None of those sounds real, er, benign and I am certainly not going to take something as inert as a sunflower seed and turn it in to hazardous waste.  But JFT has the answer to that too.  You’re gonna love this… COMPOST! Once you skim off the biodiesel, which itself is biodegradable, you can then separate the by product back into its three parts: Methanol (to be reclaimed in a condenser for reuse), Free Fatty Acids (which you can mix with sawdust and burn to heat the next batch of biodiesel or you can compost it too) and Glycerin which makes a good all purpose degreaser, but can easily be composted  and if you used Potassium Lye as a catalyst you now are adding potassium to your compost pile.  Nice!

This was a nice 800 word way for me to say that making fuel for a tractor this size, or even significantly larger, on site is very doable-devoting 1 acre and a few hours a month can net you about 80 gallons of biodiesel, which is about 40 times more than I will probably need (if I am tilling up an extra acre), or put .25 acres under and get 20 gallons in about 4 batches.  Nice, scaleable, and very user friendly.

I now call my Sunday Research Project to a close!


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