NPR logo

At $1 a Gallon, Biodiesel a Cheap Alternative to Gas

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
At $1 a Gallon, Biodiesel a Cheap Alternative to Gas

Your Money

At $1 a Gallon, Biodiesel a Cheap Alternative to Gas

At $1 a Gallon, Biodiesel a Cheap Alternative to Gas

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

High gasoline prices have spurred interest in hybrids and alternative fuels. Science correspondent David Kestenbaum reports on biodiesel, a gas alternative that costs less than $1 a gallon. A typical source of the fuel is restaurants tossing their used frying oil.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

How would you like to pay under a dollar a gallon to run your car? It is possible if you're willing to dive into a few Dumpsters and take a ribbing from your friends. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports on the sweet and sour of biodiesel.


Most cars run on fuel made from oil that comes out of the ground, but it's also possible to make fuel from another kind of oil, the kind that comes from plants, the kind you cook with. Talima Pearson lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Some days, he leaves his job in a research laboratory and goes to one of the local restaurants. Out back in a special Dumpster is used vegetable oil.

Mr. TALIMA PEARSON: We essentially go Dumpster diving and scoop the oil out of the Dumpster and put it in containers.

KESTENBAUM: What does the oil look like when you pull it out of the Dumpster?

Mr. PEARSON: It looks fairly dark brown, you know, a couple pieces of floating sweet and sour pork or french fries or what have you.

KESTENBAUM: His friends made fun of him. Yes, this was environmentally friendly, but Talima was doing all this work and ending up with fuel that cost about the same as gas at the pump.

Mr. PEARSON: All of my friends give me a hard time. They don't rib me as much now that they've seen the fuel prices.

(Soundbite of Pearson mixing biodiesel)

KESTENBAUM: His cost for a gallon of homemade fuel not including labor?

Mr. PEARSON: About 97 cents.

KESTENBAUM: One catch: Your car has to be able to run on diesel and you have to fill your tank by hand. Talima uses five-gallon cans. The fuel has a beautiful golden hue, but making it takes some work. In his garage, Pearson mixes alcohol, methanol with lye that you can buy at the supermarket. Then he adds that to the vegetable oil. Be careful if you try this at home. That methanol is sold as race car fuel. It's pretty flammable. That doesn't worry Talima's wife, Kristen Pearson.

Mrs. KRISTEN PEARSON: I think it's great. I don't do a lot of the work. I help Tal get it out of the Dumpster, but other than that, I just say, `Yeah, we've got a car that we don't have to pay as much for gas and it's cleaner.' And, yeah, I'm really psyched about it and I tell everyone I know about it.

KESTENBAUM: It's kind of a lot of work. It's just a little messy.

Mr. PEARSON: It sometimes is a little bit messy.

KESTENBAUM: You're nodding.

Mrs. PEARSON: I'm nodding because we have quite a lot of clothes that we can't wear anymore because the biodiesel stains it. And I'm always bugging Talima, `Don't wear your nice clothes when we do this.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: But with practice, we get a little bit cleaner.

KESTENBAUM: They go back and forth like this a lot.

Mr. PEARSON: The labor? It really isn't that bad. I mean, I'm just like two minutes running out to the garage and flipping a switch.

KESTENBAUM: Is that a fair estimate?

Mrs. PEARSON: Yes and no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: Well, that's because I do other things in the garage at the same time.

Mrs. PEARSON: Well, I'm just thinking of recently, Tal's been trying to fine tune that a little bit, and so we've had a couple of batches that have not turned out. Instead of doing small little batches, he does the whole 30 gallons and so we'll wind up with 30 gallons of stuff we can't use in the car. And it's essentially a toxic substance that you can't just put out with the trash and so...

Mr. PEARSON: Not really. It's not really a toxic substance that you can't--I mean, we dispose of it properly, but...

Mrs. PEARSON: He disposes of it in my flower beds...


Mrs. PEARSON: ...and he wonders why no flowers are growing there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: The car usually runs fine. The exhaust smells nice, like oil on a hot skillet. Other people around the country also make their fuel this way; you can find instructions in books and on Web sites. It's clearly not for everyone and there isn't enough for everyone. Ken Stroud is a scientist who works on future car technologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Mr. KEN STROUD (Los Alamos National Laboratory): It may solve their problem, but there's not enough vegetable oil for french fry fryers around the country to drive the US transportation system. The amount of oil that we import and use every day just swamps those kinds of things.

KESTENBAUM: Growing fuel is a nice idea on the small scale, he says, but meeting the country's needs would require four Iowas worth of crops. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.