Fuel that’s off the grid

Times Staff Writer

For years in this car-clogged city, the easiest way to score a tank of biodiesel -- that much-hyped fuel of the future -- involved seeking out a guy named Rob Del Bueno.

Del Bueno is not an engineer or a gas station owner, but a former member of a sci-fi surf rock band called Man or Astro-man? He played bass, and spent most of the 1990s telling people he was from outer space.

Del Bueno also built the group’s kitschy stage props: the high-voltage circuit known as a Tesla coil, which threw off mad-scientist bolts of electricity; the homemade theremin, the electronic instrument that lent a spooky vibe to countless B-movie soundtracks.

A few years ago, with the band on hiatus, Del Bueno developed another passion: brewing up pure biodiesel from used kitchen oil. He couldn’t believe that fuel -- the source of so much war and worry -- could be so easily produced from an ingredient available in the back of a fast-food restaurant.


Drivers, he learned, could pump pure biodiesel into unmodified diesel engines and enjoy low greenhouse gas emissions. So Del Bueno began making it -- lots of it -- in an old water heater in his yard. He put his number on the Web. When customers called, he would meet them for a fill-up in his driveway.

“It was sort of like a drug deal,” he says now, laughing.

Like a number of small biodiesel producers around the country, however, Del Bueno is now pushing his product a little closer to the mainstream. Last month, he and a nonprofit, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, unveiled the first biodiesel retail station within Atlanta city limits. The contraption, which Del Bueno built himself, is simple enough: It’s a 1,100-gallon tank in a shipping container outfitted with a credit-card reader and a pump. Del Bueno stocks the tank with fuel he makes at a tiny plant he built south of town.

Buying pure biodiesel, or something very close to it, has suddenly become a lot less weird here, as it has in a number of other American cities, including Berkeley, Portland, Austin and Los Angeles, where a local biodiesel advocacy group persuaded three gas stations to carry a 99% biodiesel blend. Yet pure biodiesel remains outsider stuff: Most car makers suggest biodiesel only be used in blends of up to 20% with regular diesel fuel.


In many cases, the fuel at these pumps is supplied by earth-friendly co-ops and idealist-entrepreneurs who started out, like Del Bueno, as moonshiners. They know their growth potential is limited: Though much of America’s commercial truck fleet runs on diesel, there are fewer than 5 million diesel cars, pickups and SUVs on the road. But they also believe they are fighting for the soul of the growing biofuels movement.

In an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, the Bush administration has spent millions of dollars to spur production of biodiesel and ethanol. But as more big businesses get involved, activists worry biofuels will be produced in a way that ends up having a negligible, if not harmful, effect on the environment.

“If you are bringing in [raw materials] from many miles away, and you’re spending a significant amount of energy -- and possibly petroleum-based energy -- to make a renewable fuel, how renewable is that?” said Rachel Burton, president of North Carolina-based Piedmont Biofuels.

So, taking a cue from the organic and slow-food movements, many of the little guys have begun promoting their product as sustainable biodiesel. They believe some drivers will insist on using fuel whose raw materials have been harvested locally and responsibly. Piedmont, for example, produces 75,000 gallons of biodiesel a month -- using local soybean oil, restaurant oil and chicken grease -- and sells it to the 500 members of its co-op.


“It’s kind of like locally made beer,” Del Bueno says. “You can always buy Budweiser cheaper. But people will pay $5 a pint for the local beer if it’s any good.”

The emerging world of boutique biodiesel can seem oddly familiar to a veteran of the indie rock scene. There is the fight-the-big-guys storyline, the sense of mission, the fetishization of locally made product.

Del Bueno, 35, has been forced to play catch-up on the science. But he knows something about maximizing customers in a niche market.

You learn that kind of thing in a surf rock band that purports to be from outer space.


Del Bueno’s driveway smells like a bottle of Wesson oil that’s been left in a hot cabinet for years. “Does it?” he asks. “I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to it.”

His home is a 19th century commercial building in Reynoldstown, a working-class neighborhood that, like much of central Atlanta, is rapidly gentrifying. The place was a crack house when Del Bueno bought it in 1998. He built a recording studio on the first floor. Above that is his loft, decorated with the same Atomic Age aesthetic that informed his music. On the bookshelves: David Macaulay’s illustrated “The Way Things Work,” futurist Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” and Eric Schlosser’s junk-food jeremiad, “Fast Food Nation.”

One of the few hints of a rock ‘n’ roll past is a Devo action figure. The New Wave band archly theorized that humans, particularly Americans, were devolving into a moronic, sheeplike state of apathy. Del Bueno is asked if he agrees.

“I’ve done no empirical studies,” he says. But if there is any proof, he adds, “it’s the presidential elections of the last eight years.”


Man or Astro-man? was not a political group. Most of its songs -- with titles like “Bermuda Triangle Shorts” -- had no lyrics, save for sampled snippets of horror movie dialogue. But by 2002, with the group disbanded, Del Bueno had begun paying more attention to politics. It was his introduction to biodiesel that launched his career as an activist.

It started with a conversation Del Bueno had that summer with an itinerant singer-songwriter who calls himself, rather appropriately, Paul Sprawl. He told Del Bueno about another musician who was touring the country in a diesel truck running on straight vegetable oil.

Del Bueno went home, did some research and discovered that biofuels were used in some of the earliest diesel engines. In the language of his B-movie-loving band, it was a moment of shocking transmogrification. Suddenly, an artist who had been toying with the aesthetic of retro-futurism had plunged into biodiesel’s retro-futuristic reality:

“I was thinking, ‘Wait, 100 years ago, we knew how to run an engine on straight vegetable oil? Think about where we are now.’ ”


Something about the conversation with Sprawl stimulated his urge to tinker. Del Bueno had an underused degree in industrial design from Auburn University; his father was an engineer. On the Web, he found a recipe for modifying vegetable oil into biodiesel. A few days later, he bought a bottle of Wesson oil at the grocery store. Methanol he found at an auto parts store, marketed as a fuel additive. Lye he found in a pipe-cleaning product called Red Devil.

He mixed the ingredients in a 2-liter soda bottle. After a few minutes, the glycerin floated to the bottom, the color of stout. A lighter, golden fluid the color of ale floated to the top.

“I was kind of like, ‘I think I just made fuel,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t long before I was looking for an old diesel Mercedes.”

He found one for $1,500 -- a 1974 military-green sedan with a broken odometer. He made a bigger batch of biodiesel in his yard, and poured it into the tank. It fired up perfectly.


Soon Del Bueno was proselytizing. He set up a company, VEGenergy, and stepped up his home brew operation. In 2003, he traveled to Plains -- Jimmy Carter’s hometown -- to attend a conference on the emerging biodiesel industry. Politicians had come, as well as representatives of the fuel and agriculture industries.

But Del Bueno’s was the only car that ran on the stuff.

Back in Atlanta, he hosted discussion forums on the Internet, and bought and sold old diesels. The local alternative weekly, Creative Loafing, called Del Bueno “the fried fuel pied piper.”

He was honest about biodiesel’s possible drawbacks. Pure biodiesel can jell at cold temperatures. There was also the more serious issue of nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen monoxide, both known as NOx, which may contribute to smog formation. Some studies suggest cars that run on biodiesel emit more NOx than regular diesels and even cars that run on standard gas -- although Del Bueno and others say more recent research refutes those findings.


Del Bueno argues that one of the magic properties of the fuel is that it encourages people to research the sources of their energy. “It forces people to look at all of these other issues they hadn’t looked at before. . . . The next thing you know, they’re putting solar panels on their roof, or whatever,” he says. “It kind of transforms their perspective.”

He met more or less every Atlantan impatient to go off the petroleum grid. They were high school students, aging hippies, regular Joes and indie musicians, who lent the movement a little hipster cachet.

Unless they brewed their biodiesel at home, all of them had to see Del Bueno. Their only other option was visiting a fuel wholesaler in the northern suburb of Marietta.The enthusiasm was spreading, but Del Bueno was worried. He heard through the grapevine that the Environmental Protection Agency could fine him for running an unlicensed operation, and that he could be responsible for failing to pay excise taxes.

He needed to go legitimate. It was a good moment to pray for some kind of benefactor -- maybe one of those left-leaning Hollywood types.


There aren’t many of those people in Atlanta. But in 2005, Del Bueno’s reputation made its way to Vanessa Vadim, a local filmmaker who is also Jane Fonda’s daughter. She told Del Bueno she would bankroll his expansion with a grant from the Fonda Family Foundation, if Del Bueno would attach himself to a nonprofit.

“The way he’s doing it here -- where it’s based on used cooking oils being recycled, [and it’s] locally distributed and locally used -- that’s as good as it gets,” Vadim says. “The only way you could do better is by plugging an electric car directly into a solar panel.”

Today, Del Bueno is a full-time employee of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The regional nonprofit focuses on global warming issues.

On a recent afternoon, Del Bueno was standing in the parking lot of its Atlanta office, showing off his retail station. He was dressed in a utilitarian rock ‘n’ roll uniform -- dark work shirt, Dickies pants and scuffed work boots -- that suits him equally well in the fuel industry.


Suddenly, from somewhere inside the container, there was a sound of a dial tone, and the keying of a telephone number. A machine with a will of its own: In the old days, with his band, this would have been a rich fictional conceit, perhaps worth an allusion in a song title. Now it was real life.

Del Bueno seemed momentarily confused. Maybe its internal modem was dialing out to make some credit card transactions, he said.

Minutes later, a 1976 Mercedes 300D pulled into the lot, black and rusted. The shaggy-haired driver, Todd Galpin, stepped out and made chitchat with Del Bueno as he swiped and pumped. The biodiesel was selling for $3.09 per gallon -- about 50 cents more than the cheapest unleaded in town.

Galpin, 32, is the drummer in a neo-psychedelic garage band called The Hiss, and he’d been buying Del Bueno’s biodiesel for a while.


“It’s just mainly that the fuel’s made in America,” he said.

In November, Del Bueno finished his biodiesel conversion plant, which is housed in a 40-foot-long cargo container. He built it using four 535-gallon vats he bought from a Kentucky distillery. Other parts came from an Ace hardware store.

The setup, while safe, is “a Rube Goldberg machine,” he said. “Really Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

The plant is in an industrial area, on the property of a family-owned fuel recycling company that lent the nonprofit the space. Del Bueno is out there most days, switching out connections and checking samples.


He is producing about 400 gallons per week. It’s not enough to fully supply the retail pump, so he is supplementing the supply with biodiesel he buys from the wholesaler north of town. When he works out a few bugs, however, the plant will be able to make 2,000 gallons per week.

Even then, Del Bueno acknowledges, it will be a minuscule contribution to the city’s fuel supply. But he doesn’t see why a little operation like this shouldn’t be an option in every city in the South, if not beyond. He and the nonprofit are talking about selling the idea to entrepreneurs elsewhere.

Some of their fuel could go to large customers with truck and bus fleets. Del Bueno’s nonprofit is already supplying biodiesel to Emory University.

Georgia’s state prison system has called to inquire about the technology as well.


“They said, ‘Look, we got grease, we got the labor, and we’ve got vehicles that run on diesel,’ ” Del Bueno says.

The passenger car market may also expand. This year, a new generation of diesel cars is set to go on sale, even in states like California, where in the past they have failed to meet emissions standards.

Del Bueno and the nonprofit are already planning to build a second tiny biodiesel plant in Knoxville, Tenn., in a collaborative venture with the University of Tennessee.

The Atlanta project has yet to be perfected, however. City bureaucrats, Del Bueno says, appear to have no idea how to regulate the retail outlet: His application for an operating permit was denied. Though it looks like a gas station, it’s about as combustible as a tub of Crisco, Del Bueno says.


James Brundage, the fire plan reviewer for the city building bureau, would not discuss why the application was rejected.

That has made Del Bueno squeamish about promoting the station too aggressively. It was only last week that he adorned it with a couple of modest banners. “Renewable -- Cleaner -- Local,” one says.

Set back from the side street, the banners are easy to overlook. So the station sits in the lot like a too-cool nightclub, waiting for people in the know to seek it out. --