Young entrepreneurs discover the upside of biodiesel production

by Keith Barber

Weston Brown (left) and his business partner, Seth Parker, refine a batch of biodiesel fuel at their warehouse facility in Winston-Salem. Brown and Parker are hoping to gain EPA approval to produce greater quantities of biodiesel and use it in their company vehicles. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

On the morning of July 22, the temperature was rapidly approaching 90 degrees as Weston Brown and Seth Parker worked out of the warehouse of their landscaping and lawncare business in Winston- Salem. An industrial fan circulated the humid air inside the space that could’ve easily been mistaken for their home garage as the two longtime friends created their latest batch of biodiesel fuel.

Two semesters of organic chemistry at UNCG inspired Parker to learn the process of making diesel fuel out of used cooking oil. After finding an online manual, Parker convinced Brown they should make their own biodiesel as a summer project.

“I thought it was really cool and an easy way to produce fuel,” Parker said.

Brown started his landscaping business with a single diesel truck given to him by his grandfather, so when Parker offered him the opportunity to make his operating fleet more environmentally friendly while saving money on fuel, he jumped at the chance.

“He asked me if I would like to make some batches [of biodiesel] with him and really put a few cars on the road and burn this stuff to help out the environment a little bit while saving some money,” Brown said.

Once Parker and Brown receive approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to begin making biodiesel for their on-road vehicles, Brown will use it in all four trucks in his fleet. Currently, they use biodiesel in their lawn tractors and other landscaping equipment.

“We’re producing it for about a dollar a gallon right now, which is a fraction of the cost of what actual diesel is,” Brown said. “There’s [tax] incentives that you can get a dollar [per gallon] back in [refunds] so you can basically produce it for free.”

Parker then walked over to a 110-gallon tank and took a moment to describe the process of creating biodiesel.

“Take sodium hydroxide, mix in with methanol — that creates your methoxide solution,” Parker explained. “Then you heat up the oil to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and dump it in the methoxide solution and mix it up for about two hours. You pump it into a big jug and let it sit for 24 hours.”

“When you come back, they’ll be two different layers,” Parker continued. “You’ll have biodiesel on the top and glycerin on the bottom. You drain off the glycerin off the bottom; then you take hot tap water and wash the biodiesel. Then, from there you let it dry for a couple of days and it’s ready to go.”

Making biodiesel is as straightforward as it sounds, Parker said, but the key ingredient — used cooking oil — is harder and harder to come by these days. Increased consumer demand for biofuels has made what was once a waste byproduct of the restaurant industry a valuable commodity.

“Just a few years back, people were paying to get the oil pumped and hauled off and now it’s between 30 to 60 cents per gallon,” Brown said. “[Restaurants] are now getting paid by these companies that are coming and picking up this used vegetable oil. That’s kind of made it a little harder.”

Increased demand for used cooking oil has proven a mixed blessing for Parker and Brown, but they say it’s a sign they’re on the right track.

“It’s catching on really fast,” he said. “It’s commercially viable as an alternative fuel — you have a lot of people wanting to convert over to it because it’s a lot cheaper.”

Brown and Parker acquire most of their used cooking oil from smaller restaurants.

“It’s all about recycling and turning it into something you can actually use for on-road use,” Parker said. “I just think it’s pretty cool you can take stuff that comes out of a fryer and put it in your fuel tank and drive a couple of hundred miles for next to nothing.”

Parker and Brown tout their use of biofuels and their landscaping business is thriving.

“People see that we’re trying to do our part and it can also help save them money in the long run,” Brown said. “When those prices fluctuate so much, I don’t have to send out letters saying we have to go up 5 or 10 percent for a time because our fuel would stay about the same. I think it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Parker and Brown envision a bright future for their biodiesel enterprise, which has fueled their passion for building a small business while reducing their carbon footprint.

“If we could get enough contracts with restaurants and find enough oil that we could produce hundreds of gallons… and maybe eventually trying to sell some,” Parker said. “When I first started, I was making it in little drums over there that are like four and a half gallons. A couple of weeks later, we’re up to these 110-gallon tanks. Who knows how much we’ll be producing a couple of years down the road?"

Weston´s Landscaping & Maintenance 3250 Presley Drive Winston-Salem, NC 27107 336.403.7613