Business

Fuel from French Fries

"(PHOTO: Oak Harbor's Bob McConchie says he hasn't quite figured out how to scale up his home fuel-making operation yet, but when he does it will produce fuel like the bottle he's holding here in his right hand)North Whidbey resident Bob McConchie wants to change the world with some used cooking oil from Kathy's Kitchen.That is, he plans to start a business he hopes will help change attitudes about energy and fuel by converting used vegetable oils from the Oak Harbor restaurant, and hopefully many other restaurants throughout the region, into something people can pour into their diesel-powered cars and trucks.It's called bio-diesel. McConchie, a long-time fan of alternative energy, and his partner Mark Hickinbotham plan to produce and market the product on the island. Bio-diesel is much cleaner and environmentally-friendly than fossil fuels, McConchie said. It also costs less and quantities aren't controlled by OPEC. McConchie estimates he'll be able to sell it at about $1 a gallon.It's not a new idea. McConchie said he got the recipe for bio-diesel from a magazine on alternative energy. He's set up a little workshop where he's creating new ways to do things more efficiently. On a table in his workshop he has a small row of plastic bottles filled with dark, speckled stuff - evidence of experiments that went wrong. But the good stuff is a clear, amber liquid. To get to that point, the dirty oil - used to deep-fry fish or fries - has to be filtered, heated, measured for fat content, then mixed with methyl alcohol and a catalyst.Right now McConchie is making his fuel a few gallons at a time in a crock pot and running it through coffee filters. His next step is to create a facility to make 40 to 50 gallons at a time.The process can change a little, depending on where he gets the oil and how used it is. The oil from Kathy's Kitchen, he said, is pretty clean since the restaurant changes it often, but other restaurants may do that less often. Restaurant managers are glad to give the used oil to him since they normally have to pay to get it taken away.To prove that the product works, and to get around town, McConchie fuels his diesel-powered Volkswagen pickup with his homemade bio-diesel. He hasn't noticed any difference from regular diesel. In fact, he said his bio-diesel is cleaner for engines.I haven't found anything bad about this yet, he said, holding a bottle of the liquid, except that I don't make enough.Judging from the number of alternative energy magazines scattered about his house, McConchie is serious about his interest in alternative energy. He said he's always been transfixed by the idea of electric cars and actually built his own after he retired from the Navy.Converting his regular Volkswagen Rabbit into an electric car, he said, was surprisingly easy with off-the-shelf parts. The car can go about 40 mph at about 2 cents a mile. The problem, of course, is that there aren't enough places he can plug into to recharge the car over long trips.After he heard about bio-diesel, he said he turned his attention towards creating an organic fuel that could compete with fossil fuels.McConchie said his experience in Desert Storm and Desert Shield made him question the reason the nation is so invested in the Persian Gulf region. I'm very passionate about getting my country away from foreign oil, he said.A product like bio-diesel, he said, could wean the country off its dependence on oil-producing countries while improving the environment and recycling the french fry oil at the same time.The biggest challenge facing the fledgling industry - there are seven commercial plants in the nation - is consumer attitude. McConchie said people are reserved about putting an unknown substance into their vehicles - especially expensive semi-trucks.Hopefully, McConchie said, his little business will help educate and give people confidence in the power of bio-diesel."

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