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Do-it-yourselfers turn diner grease into biodiesel fuel

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Americans store their cars, tools, even fertilizer in garages. But a refinery?

In his two-car garage, Kevin Newman is pouring used French fry oil from local restaurants into a pair of General Electric household water heaters – his version of the giant petroleum cracking towers found at an oil company refinery. He deftly moves hoses around, scrubs the impurities from the oil, performs chemical tests, and, voilà, a week later, he is filling-up his pickup truck with biodiesel. He figures his home refinery saves him and his business, which has six trucks, about $1.75 a gallon.

"If you can bake a cake, you can make biodiesel," says Mr. Newman.

With diesel at $3 a gallon, 50 cents more than last year, ingenious Americans like Newman are turning their garages and basements into mini-refineries. Websites publish instructions, community colleges offer classes, and biodiesel adherents give tours touting the improvement in exhaust emissions. Country and Western star Willie Nelson has his own "fresh farm biodiesel." Companies casually sell the equipment to turn used cooking oil into diesel as if owning your own refinery is part of the American dream.

There is no question that commercial biodiesel production is booming. This year, production is expected to come in at 150 million gallons, up from 75 million gallons last year and 25 million gallons two years ago, according to the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo.

The number will continue to grow: In Washington State alone, two new plants are being built that will produce a total of 160 million gallons per year by 2008. But the production is still modest compared with total US consumption of 38 billion gallons of diesel per year.

"The goal we have as an industry is to achieve 1 billion gallons by 2015," says National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe. "When we made the projection it seemed aggressive, but it is becoming more reachable all the time."

Teaching others to make the switch

Although there is no data on the backyard production of biodiesel, anecdotal evidence indicates that production is blossoming, as well. In the Seattle area, Lyle Rudensey, aka "BioLyle," leads workshops for 25 to 30 people at a time.

"My intent is to help them get rid of their gas guzzler," says Mr. Rudensey, who produces 50 gallons of biodiesel for himself every other week. "It's kind of fun to turn people on to this."

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