Fuel at its finest


WELLSVILLE, Ohio – Tucked in the corner of John Russell’s barn is an odd collection of items. There’s a water heater and a fish pump. A cattle fan and pantyhose. Big barrels and some tubing.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell what this 16-year-old is up to, but a closer look gives telltale signs. First, there’s a desk set up with beakers, colorful liquids, a scale – tools for a serious experiment. And then, in another corner, there’s a dead giveaway – jugs of used cooking oil.
The high school junior is making biodiesel. But he’s not just producing this renewable fuel, he’s also using it to power the tractors on his family’s Wellsville farm.
Russell recently baled 15 acres of hay using a John Deere 5510 that ran on B50 made right on the farm.
“Sooner or later, I’m going to have things running on B100,” he said.
Good idea. The teen’s interest in biodiesel began three years ago when he read a story about a farmer who was making renewable fuel. Even at 13, Russell could see the logic behind it.
The idea of making biodiesel simmered for a couple of years. Then, six months ago, Russell got the inkling to investigate a little further. He did some research and started talking to at-home biodiesel makers through Internet forums.
The more he learned, the more he wanted to try it for himself.
Not long ago, in a local Save-A-Lot, the idea came to life with a single bottle of cooking oil.
Using a hot plate from his mom’s kitchen and lye from a hardware store, he set out to make a 1-liter batch of biodiesel. Just enough to see if it would really work.
It didn’t.
“The first two small batches with new cooking oil failed,” Russell said.
Keep trying. But like any good entrepreneur, the high schooler refused to give up.
He tried again, only this time, he got used cooking oil from the Valley Drive-In in Wellsville.
It worked like a charm.
“When I made that first batch, that’s when I was like, ‘I’m doing the processor,'” Russell said.
The processor – officially called an apple seed processor – gives at-home biodiesel makers a way to produce more fuel in less time.
It starts with used cooking oil from restaurants. Russell dumps the oil into a collection barrel, using old pantyhose as a filter. From there, he pumps it into water heater, which has been modified to become an apple seed processor. The processor heats and circulates the oil until it reaches 135 degrees.
He adds some methanol and potassium hydroxide and by the next day, he’s got biodiesel and glycerin. The glycerin, which is a result of the methanol, goes back into the processor where Russell separates the two components. The methanol can be reused in the next batch of biodiesel and the glycerin can be made into soap.
After the biodiesel is separated from the glycerin, the fuel is drained into a wash barrel where a mister cleans it out.
“The whole thing is pretty cobbled together,” Russell said.
But it gets the job done.
Learn as you go. Although Russell practiced with small batches first, he still had some learning to do the first time he turned on the processor. The first batch was a bust due to an improper pipe angle and a vent that should’ve been open, but wasn’t. The second batch didn’t fully react and emulsified.
After a quick revision of his biodiesel recipe, Russell struck gold with the next two batches.
Well, actually he struck the opposite of gold in terms of finances. He estimates the cost of his biodiesel at 85 cents per gallon.
Before heading to the tractors, Russell ran several tests to determine the quality of his homemade biodiesel. The tests told him the tractors would run on his product, so he wasn’t nervous about pouring it in. However, he didn’t tell his dad he’d actually used the homemade biodiesel until after he knew it worked.
After determining the quality of the biodiesel, Russell did a test run of sorts, first putting it into a 1984 Kubota. When it worked, he went big time, filling the tank of the 5510 with his biodiesel blend.
Three days. The processor and the process are still a work in progress, but Russell has been producing about 25 gallons at a time. The entire procedure takes about three days, from the time he picks up the cooking oil to the time he puts it in a tractor.
Russell has always been interested in science and he’s hoping this is just the beginning of where the subject might take him. He plans to go to college and study some combination of science and agriculture – maybe fuel chemistry or agricultural engineering. When he’s done, he wants to open a biodiesel plant in Ohio.
“It’s geared toward the future and that has potential, I think,” Russell said.
Although he’s had a few surprises along the way, the teen has eagerly solved any problems. Because out in the fields, there’s a bit of pride that comes with running a tractor on homemade renewable fuel.
Pride that has the distinct scent of fried chicken.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)


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Former reporter Janelle Skrinjar wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2005 to 2009.