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Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, and long before the recent spike in gas prices, environmentalists, scientists and engineers have tried to wean the nation off a strict diet of oil — a condition President George W. Bush has deemed a national addiction.
Today, a growing number of entrepreneurs concede to this dependence, but the oil they're addicted to isn't Texas Tea. It's spent vegetable oil — the same oil used to fry chicken and fries. The difference: this grease increases mileage, not cholesterol.
Building on a Dream
Enter Stephen "Sam" Merrett, a 2005 graduate of Oberlin College who has been consumed by the process of creating fuel from waste since the winter of 2003, when he and two classmates built a biodiesel processor with a small research grant while on winter break. Upon his return, Merrett established an Ohio-based alternative fuel initiative named Biodiesel Oberlin (BO), a group comprised of Oberlin College students, staff, professors and community members dedicated to raising availability and awareness of biofuel technology. His pursuits were further supported when he received an American Public Power Association Scholarship to conduct research using biodiesel in generators at Oberlin Municipal Light and Power Service. Merrett then worked with a team of students and professors to apply for funding from the Environmental Protection Agency's People Prosperity and the Planet Sustainability Challenge. In 2004, he took a prolific step by converting his 1998 VW Jetta to operate on Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO).
Last year, Merrett, along with his partner and master technician, Bob Beckett, assumed ownership of a run-down Marathon gas station in Oberlin with the intention of "playing with the concept of what a gas station and convenience store could offer," said Merrett.
The result is Full Circle Fuels, a venture that is partly non-profit, supported by a grant Merrett received from the Compton Mentor Fellowship program. Providing several services, including the sale of general energy efficiency supplies and a repair shop where SVO conversions and regular automotive repair takes place, Full Circle Fuels also serves as a destination for energy-related educational initiatives.
"We've been very fortunatebecause our timing has been perfect. SVO and biodiesel were a hot issue, and since we've opened our shop they have become hotter and hotter. Also, people come into the shop for an array of reasons: political, social and environmental," said Beckett; while Merrett added, "The issue of alternative fuels and fuel independence appeals to all walks of life."
A Full Circle Fuel First
Joining a handful of other companies in the Greater Cleveland area that are selling biodiesel this summer, Full Circle Fuels became one of the first stations to blend biodiesel and petroleum diesel at the pump. In total, there are three 8,000 gallon tanks on site operating from two pumps.
"One tank is biodiesel, another is petroleum and the third is E85," said Merrett. He explained that customers have the choice — through computer automation — of selecting a two-percent mix of biodiesel with diesel or 100 percent biodiesel.And with over 1,400 stations nationwide offering some form of alternative fuel options, Merrett said hewas both intrigued and encouraged to discover that Full Circle Fuels was among the first to offercustomers a biodiesel choice at the pump.
"That," he said, "was kind of a shock."
The Art of Conversion
In addition to offering alternative fuels, Full Circle Fuelshas been converting diesel vehicles to run on biodiesel or SVO, with costs ranging from $2,000 for cars and $3,000 for pick up trucks. "We're booked three weeks in advance," said Merrett. "Every week from our shop alone, there are two more converted vehicles on the road, which is great to see."
And while the majority of his customer base is drawn locally, some of Full Circle Fuels clientele come from as far as Boston, Mass., which was the case with 38-year-old Benjamin Chalick, who found Full Circle Fuels on the Internet while searching for Golden Fuel System conversion systems. His 1999 Chevy Suburban was modified — at a cost of $3,500 — to run on biodiesel. In addition, he had an onboard filter and pump installed "to fill up on the road as well as process waste vegetable oil."
When asked what led to his decision to investigate alternative fuels, and make the trip to Ohio to have the conversion completed, he responded: "The need to eliminate our dependency of foreign oil and change to a domestically produced fuel which burns clean for the environment."
The price savings of using vegetable oil varies depending on a lot of factors. For a diesel engine, the mix is one gallon of diesel gasoline with the rest spent vegetable oil, which is usually attained for free. The ratio varies between vehicles.
Chalick said his gas mileage has remained roughly the same, averaging between 17 to 20 miles-per-gallon, but he has saved $35 dollars per week on fuel costs. "The real savings will be on longer trips when virtually all fuel costs are saved. For example, my last road trip was 1,077 miles which was done using 2 gallons of diesel or $6.25. If this was made using diesel, the trip would have been in excess of $350," he noted.
Alternative fuels applications such as these might put a new twist on the old adage "nothing is for free," however. Chilack explained that while the fueling process hasn't changed when filling his diesel tank, obtaining and filling vegetable oil is a task unto itself. "I get the oil from just a couple of restaurants local to my home. I usually filter the oil into a holding tank. I can then use the onboard pumps to fill my truck from the tank. If I happen to be on the road, I can find a willing restaurant and then directly fill my tank using the onboard filter," he explained.
Merrett said that other customers are also coming from great distances, such as Connecticut resident Lee Dolan who recently had her 2001 Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon converted. "People are looking for alternatives," said Merrett.
A Convenient Twist
Merrett plans to approach the convenience aspect ofhis business progressively, too. "My first idea was to have an'inconvenient' store with slow food opposed to fast food all of which was cooked without petroleum, but now we are looking at offering organic fruits and vegetables and selling other environmentally-friendly items."
While not stocked with the typical selections of soda, chips and cigarettes, the store product mix includes Amsoil Products offering synthetic oils and transmission fluid; books, including one penned by Merrett's mentor, Ray Holan: "Sliding Home: A Complete Guide To Driving Your Diesel On Vegetable Oil;" CDs and DVDs featuring vegetable oil conversions and oil collection/filtration systems; Turtle Tiles: 100 percent recycled PVC tiles; Energy Efficient Products such as compact fluorescents light bulbs; low-flow shower heads; water heater blankets; and pipe insulation.
As for the future of a small business competing with Big Oil, Merrett said optimistically, "We want Full Circle Fuels to be a model where we can teach what we've learned to others, and not simply by replacing the fuels found at the pump but by showing how communities can work together to create a more sustainable model of fuel production and consumption. We also want to show the economic feasibility of environmental stewardship within a for-profit model."
And if Beckett's vision comes to pass, Full Circle Fuels will not be just a name, but a chain. "I see Full Circle Fuels in at least four states within the next five years."