STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Well, a startup company in Philadelphia is trying to turn grease into gold, Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel. That's Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel is hoping to make biodiesel fuel out of trap grease, the slimy gunk that collects at the bottom of the restaurant drains.
From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: Ralph Gammon(ph) is standing over an underground grease trap in the parking lot behind a Chinese restaurant near Philadelphia. Everything that slides down the drain in the restaurant ends up in this thousand-gallon tank. It's Gammon's job to empty it out.
Mr. RALPH GAMMON (Frank Environmental): Well, like scrapings from the plate, like scraps and stuff, rice and a degree of that goes down and settles at the bottom. We got to get it all mixed up together and empty it out.
ROSE: Gammon is using a big vacuum pump to suck up the slimy, foul-smelling brown grease that might otherwise clog the sewer system. The restaurant pays his company, Frank Environmental(ph), to haul the stuff away to a wastewater treatment plant where Frank pays up to 20 cents a gallon to get rid of it. Tom Ferrero(ph) is the company's vice-president.
Mr. TOM FERRERO (Vice President, Frank Environmental): So we find that we have to travel some distance to dump the grease trap waste. And the trend is that the rates keep going up and there's fewer and fewer facilities that really want to accept the waste.
ROSE: The one place that's happy to take trap grease off its cans is Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel. The company is turning waste grease into biodiesel fuel, which can replace petroleum-based fuel in diesel engines. Fry-o-Diesel staffer Emily Bockian Landsburg says trap grease is hard to work with because it contains lots of foreign objects.
Ms. EMILY BOCKIAN LANDSBURG (Fry-o-Diesel): A Brillo pad, a rat, you can use your imagination. I've seen a rat. I've seen a rat. The material itself is undesirable, and that's why there isn't a use for it now.
ROSE: Fry-o-Diesel is betting that will change. A few companies have made fuel by mixing trap grease with more traditional products, including virgin soybean oil and recycled vegetable oil. But those cost money, while trap grease is essential and free, although so far no one has succeeded in making biodiesel out of pure grease.
Ms. LANDSBURG: This is basically our processing lineup. Starting over here, we've got two big grease receiving tanks. And you can see that's...
ROSE: Fry-o-Diesel President Nadia Adawi got a state grant of almost $400,000 two years ago to do just that. She's reluctant to talk about the chemistry taking place inside this old factory building in north Philadelphia. Fry-o-Diesel starts out with sludge the color of pumpkin pie and turns it into a liquid fuel a few shades lighter than olive oil.
Ms. NADIA ADAWI (President, Fry-o-Diesel): For us, which is the natural to look at, you know, use what you got, what we have got here in Philadelphia that we can make bio fuels out of it. And that's really what led us to the trap grease. In the land of the cheesecake, we have plenty of restaurant grease.
Mr. MIKE HAAS (Consultant, Fry-o-Diesel): You can't use the standard chemistry with trap grease. You have to use some twists, some changes in chemistry, but still the reaction is pretty straightforward.
ROSE: Mike Haas studies fats in oil at the U.S. Department of Agriculture outside Philadelphia. And he's a consultant to Fry-o-Diesel. Hass has tested the fuel samples coming out of the project so far, and he's impressed.
Mr. HAAS: That work that we've done with it and that data that I've seen leaves me no doubt that it will meet all the specs for biodiesel.
ROSE: But it's not clear if Fry-o-Diesel can make money. So far, the company has produced only a few hundred gallons of fuel. Staffers say they'll have to make around three million gallons a year to turn a profit. And even that just a tiny fraction of the total U.S. demand, says David Pimentel, professor of agricultural science at Cornell University.
Professor DAVID PIMENTEL (Agricultural Science, Cornell University): This is a very small amount of material that can be converted into a fuel. It will work, but it'll never be any - of great significance.
ROSE: But the Fry-o-Diesel staff says the technology it's developing can make a real difference. Emily Bockian Landsburg says waste greases are part of a broader strategy to reduce petroleum use.
Ms. LANDSBURG: If we want a fuel that's reliable that's environmentally sustainable, we need to be looking at all sorts of feedstock.
ROSE: Fry-o-Diesel hopes to road test its fuel in the next few months. If it works, the company will start looking for funding to build a bigger factory.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
Mr. GAMMON: If they don't get it all at first go-round, then you blow it back out of the truck, stir it up real good, then pump it back out again.
ROSE: I bet that smells good.
Mr. GAMMON: Oh, boy, you're telling me.