Gardena's municipal bus line has found a way to cut down on dirt and soot from its diesel engines.
It just might smell a little bit like french fries.
In February, the transit agency will start using a mix of soybean fuel and diesel fuel in one of its 50 buses to reduce black-colored diesel emissions. Transit officials say that if the six-month tryout works, they might use the blend in buses on a regular basis.
"This is kind of a new frontier in alternative fuels," said Alina Kulikowski-Tan, vice president of the ADEPT Group, a Los Angeles engineering consulting firm spearheading the project with a $252,000 state grant. "We want to clean up emissions and cut costs. That is what we are looking for."
Gardena will begin using a blend of 20% soybean and 80% diesel fuel on a bus that runs to and from downtown Los Angeles. ADEPT predicts that the test will cut 5,400 pounds of pollution and save 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel during the six-month test period. State and federal air quality officials will conduct tests on the bus, comparing the emissions to those from other buses in the fleet.
"Nothing right now is so (certain) that they would go on a full scale," said Whitman Ballenger, director of the Gardena bus line. "But if we're satisfied, and the cost is not prohibitive, we might start using it on a regular basis."
When the project starts, bus riders will not notice a change in the smoothness of the trip or the roar of the vehicle's engines. In fact, diesel engines do not have to be modified to accept the new fuel.
"This is an opportunity to use buses for the remainder of their lives," Kulikowski-Tan said. By contrast, other cities testing natural gas have to spend money to retrofit their vehicles or buy new ones, she said.
The Gardena bus, however, may give off a faint smell of fried foods because of the vegetable oils being used. And rather than a blackish haze, the bus will spit out whitish or brownish fumes.
Use of organic fuels dates from the turn of the century, when Randolph Diesel tested his namesake engine using peanut oil. But petroleum proved less costly, and biologically grown fuels have always had a tough time gaining a foothold in the marketplace.
The biggest stumbling block has been the price. In its purest form, the soybean fuel costs about $2.50 per gallon.
For that reason, Gardena is testing the 20% blend, which still costs about 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon more than regular diesel fuel, according to Interchem Environmental, an Overland Park, Kan., company that is marketing the fuel.
"We have found that if you blend this with diesel, you still get some of the pollutants out of the air," said Kenlon Johannes, executive director of the National SoyDiesel Development Board, a Jefferson City, Mo., group that has agreed to chip in $22,000 for the Gardena project.
The board, formed a year ago by soybean farmers, is funding soybean-fuel demonstrations in 10 transit agencies nationwide, hoping that cities will use the fuel to comply with more stringent clean-air guidelines. Federal rules require that most urban transit agencies cut emissions by 25% by 1995.
In California, the soybean group is funding tests in Oakland, Santa Cruz and Santa Clarita. Farmers are hoping cities nationwide will buy as much as 50 million gallons of soybean fuel each year.
Soybean harvests are "in such an oversupply, we were seeking other uses," Johannes said. "This is just another new market they are looking at for their products."