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Biodiesel Hits the Big Screen in 'Fields of Fuel'

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Biodiesel Hits the Big Screen in 'Fields of Fuel'

Environment

Biodiesel Hits the Big Screen in 'Fields of Fuel'

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A little bit later in the hour, we'll talk about a Braille book about the universe and also about NASA probe that is swinging by the planet Mercury sending back photos. It's going through the solar system and what they call gravity assist, you know? We can't send, you know, missions to some of these planets the way we used to, just we go out and orbit the planet and either land there or go around the planet. Now, we send them to the planet and out back into space and use a gravity assist. We got to tell you it's kind of interesting what's going on there. We're going to talk about that a little bit later in the show.

But up, first, biodiesel. It is hitting the silver screen at the Sundance Film Festival and it's running in Park City, Utah. The festival has begun. And one of the films buying for competition there is a documentary called "Fields of Fuel." It's a 90-minute film about biodiesel and how it might be used to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment. We have seen the director tooling around the town in his Veggie Van. Have you seen the Veggie Van in recent years, buying up used cooking oil from fast food joints?

Joining me now to talk about it is Josh Tickell, biodiesel activist and director of the film. And he joins us by phone from Park City, where he's screening the film next week.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSH TICKELL (Biodiesel Activist; Director, "Fields of Fuel"): Thank you, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. And one of the most interesting parts of that film is you driving up to these fast food windows ordering a hamburger and all the vegetable oil in their cooker.

Mr. TICKELL: Well, that's how this whole thing started just as an experiment really, driving across the country, taking used cooking oil, turning it into a fuel that runs in an unmodified diesel engine, and just having fun with it. But it's grown much bigger since then.

FLATOW: And where - what is it grown into?

Mr. TICKELL: Well, the biodiesel industry is a - it's a national industry now. NASA uses biodiesel. The military is looking at biodiesel for its number one fuel for all of its vehicles. So, it's grown into quite a big industry and there's a lot of controversy around it now because, obviously, it puts at stake the big question, which is, why are we at war for oil in the Middle East and could biodiesel really honestly be a violable solution.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It's interesting that your film is being shown at Sundance.

Mr. TICKELL: Well, you know, the film actually opened Sundance on Wednesday night. Redford personally invited us to screen the film at the Preserve, which he felt was a more natural and environmental way to introduce the movie and to bring "Fields of Fuel" to the people here in Park City.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did you bring the Veggie Van with you?

Mr. TICKELL: We did. The Veggie Van is here in Park City and it's going to be driving around all week.

FLATOW: Actually, I'll be in Park City at the festival next week, so I have to come and take a look at it.

Mr. TICKELL: Great. You should take a drive with us.

FLATOW: Oh, take a drive with you. What kind of reaction have you gotten from the film?

Mr. TICKELL: People are - I think people are stunned by the film. The number one people - thing that people say most is the film was so much better than they thought it would be. Because I think that the people assumed that a documentary on a fuel is going to be like "Bill Nye the Science Guy" episode. And the film certainly has moments of that.

But it's a worldwide journey, Ira. We traveled around the U.S. and then we traveled to Australia. We traveled to Sweden. We traveled to Germany. And the whole thing was an investigation of history and time. And so, amazing things come out of the journey and some amazing things come out of the discovery like, Rudolf Diesel's personal story. I mean this guy was a Leonardo da Vinci-esque sort of fellow, who was mysteriously found floating and dead in the English Channel after his engine, was used by standard oil.

So, we found all sorts of amazing things in making the film, and the film was a such a great journey that when people watch it, the number one thing they say afterwards is, a, it was so much better than I thought it was and b, how can I get a biodiesel car and how I can begin to do this today?

FLATOW: Yeah. It's interesting the history of biodiesel, you point out that Diesel himself, who was found dead mysteriously floating in the river, designed the first - his diesel engine to run on peanut oil.

Mr. TICKELL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Not on petroleum.

Mr. TICKELL: Yeah. Exactly. And that's an amazing thing that people think that diesel is this dirty, smoky stuff. Well, Dr. Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, wanted it to be clean. And that's why he designed a diesel engine that way. So, we just find amazing things like that throughout the film, and people, you can hear them gasp. You can hear them laugh. You can hear them cry in the movie. It's a very emotional, powerful film because we go through all sorts of things that Americans have dealt with - the war and the issues of energy crisis and the issues of, really, what's at stake, what are we going to do with our country in the future.

FLATOW: Do you think from your research and from your filmmaking that there is enough biodiesel available to power most of the cars in the country if we were to go in that direction?

Mr. TICKELL: Well, if this is a - this is the big question. The film really builds up to these questions through the whole journey. And, you know, as I said, the big question, can we grow enough? And what we find in the film is we find amazing solutions. One idea that we have is we have to grow these food crops for fuel. And even when you grow a food crop for biodiesel - you grow something like soy beans, you don't use any food when you make the fuel because soy beans are 80 percent protein, 20 percent oil. So, we take the oil and we leave the food. So biodiesel doesn't actually compete with food even if you grow food crops to use it. But you're not going to be able to grow enough soy beans to fuel the nation.

So, what do we do? Well, in the film, we really profile some amazing stuff. We profile companies like Nova Biosource. There's a company that can make biodiesel from 25 different feed stocks. They used cooking oil. They can make it from palm oil. They can make it from everything.

And then there's other amazing breakthroughs that we see as well, like this company we visited in San Francisco called Solazyme. They make biodiesel from algae. They actually grow algae. And algae grows 10,000 times faster than conventional food crops. So the breakthroughs in technology, I think, are going to allow us to actually use it as a viable fuel source for the future.

FLATOW: You also point out that to get biodiesel to become more of a mainstream fuel, you know, you go to Germany, in particular, where the government has basically supported the price of biodiesel to keep it, to lower its price at the fuel pump, to keep it, you know, to try to get people to get used to using biodiesel.

Mr. TICKELL: Yeah. I think, to some, really, it becomes a message of politics. Not so much in that we say, hey, vote Republican or hey, vote Democrat. We don't do that at all. It's a non-partisan film. But what we found in the journey, in making the movie, is the number one thing that makes a difference between the country like Germany, where biodiesel is cheaper and its available and farmers have jobs or a country like Sweden, which is committed to being fossil-fuel free by 2020, and the United States, which imports more than 60 percent of its fuel from overseas - is government intervention. And that's directly related to the people. If we say this is what we want, if we use our dollars and our votes to go, hey, look, we want green energy whether it's biodiesel, solar, wind or some other form of green energy, the government follows. And that's what we found overseas and that's what we found is missing in the U.S. So, the film really ends with a call to action. Change your fuel. Change your politicians. Change your world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a question from Second Life, Matless(ph) who says can biodiesel be created genetically and from genetically-engineered crops?

Mr. TICKELL: Yes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TICKELL: That's the simple answer.

FLATOW: And you can make them possibly produce more oil than they would before?

Mr. TICKELL: Yes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it's interesting because I don't think that we've ever heard the idea that, you know, when we talk about using corn for ethanol - we talk about driving up the price of competing food stocks that would - but you're saying that with biodiesel, we could - if we do it from soy beans, we still have the soy bean protein that we can eat.

Mr. TICKELL: Exactly. That's the exactly the critical difference, Ira, is ethanol uses the starch in the corn kernel. So, you use the very thing that we would eat. With soybeans, you use the oil, so you do not use the thing that you eat. That food part of the crop is still available. So, it's very different fuels in how they're made.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, where do you go from here with your message?

Mr. TICKELL: Well, after Sundance, we're going to a number of other film festivals around the world. And in about April, we head on the road in a 50-city tour, we're going from L.A. to New York, the film launches in theaters out of New York, and we'll be going to cities up and down the East and West Coast through the Midwest and following the presidential campaign circling back to D.C. So we'll be on the road with the film, hopefully coming to a city near you. And you can check us out at fieldsoffuel.com. You can follow the adventure and chime in and become part of the revolution.

FLATOW: You think you're going to meet any of the candidates to - for a ride?

Mr. TICKELL: Well, I think every candidate has the potential to sign on to this. You know, this is such an exciting time in our country's history. We really stand at the crossroads. We have the potential to leap forward and embrace these new technologies. We've always been a country of innovators, the developers of new ideas, or we have the potential to sort of stagnate.

And I think this generation - this new generation sees these two technologies and says, hey, look, we were told in school we'd be running around cars that run on solar power and we'd have wind generators on our houses and fuels that are made from advanced algaes(ph) and things like that. Where are they? And I think it's up to us to make sure that the politicians are accountable for these new technologies happening in our country.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And a lot of people think that if they want to use biodiesel in their diesel engine, they have to change something in the car. But you can just pump it in right from the fuel station, right?

Mr. TICKELL: Exactly. There's no change necessary. I bought my Volkswagen Golf right off of the car lot and poured biodiesel in it. No modifications before I even left the car lot.

FLATOW: How do we get more of this installed? You know, you don't see very many biodiesel fuel pumps anywhere.

Mr. TICKELL: Exactly. Well, that's a big part of our campaigning this year is getting those biodiesel stations into a town and into a community near you, getting people involved in local areas to say, hey, look, we're going to build up the demand, school buses is the great way to build the demand because all school buses in the U.S. can use biodiesel, much cleaner, much better for the kids' lungs. You build up the demand in an area, and then gas stations start popping up. We've seen that happen in Portland. We've seen that happen in Austin. We've seen that happened across the Midwest. And now, it's time for the rest of the country to take that on as well.

FLATOW: Now, you just say, we - there are - in your film you showed, there are bus companies, school buses around the country that have changed to biodiesel.

Mr. TICKELL: Yeah, exactly. One of the most surprising examples of this is Las Vegas. Las Vegas actually operates - they transport 120,000 students a year on biodiesel school buses. And the neat thing is it didn't cause many things to change the buses because they didn't have to.

FLATOW: All right. Well, good luck to you.

Mr. TICKELL: Thank you so much, Ira.

FLATOW: And thank you for taking your time to talk with us.

Mr. TICKELL: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Good luck with…

Mr. TICKELL: Have a great day.

FLATOW: Good luck at Sundance. It's Josh Tickell, director of "Fields of Fuel," premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week. And always I say I'll be going out there next week and hopefully we'll get to see - get take a ride in it, the Veggie Van.

Stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break. Don't go away.

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