These Feulish Things
Jerry Robock’s long, strange trip has taken him from the ’60s counterculture to the forefront of the biofuel revolution
Fill 'er up: Robock pumps homemade biodiesel fuel into his Mercedes
Photographs by Ken Gabrielson
Jerry Robock is heating up 60 gallons of used French-fry oil in a jerry-rigged hot-water heater in his garage. It’s about to reach the temperature at which he must add a solution of potassium hydroxide and methanol; doing so will turn that old fry grease into the fuel he uses to run his 1995 Mercedes-Benz. So he apologizes in advance if he has to cut our interview short.
Robock, as you can imagine, is an interesting guy to talk to. Over the course of an hour, he touches on — among other things — utopian theory, Johnny Carson, being tear-gassed at a 1960s antiwar rally, his three master’s degrees from Columbia, the early days of computer science, vegetarianism, the dot-com boom and bust, and the Volkswagen Rabbit. And that’s all just backstory, serving to explain how he came to be cooking used vegetable oil in the garage of his Yorktown Heights home.
The end product of this makeshift brewery will be biodiesel fuel. This environmentally friendly alternative energy source can power any machine that runs on diesel. But it produces up to 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases than regular diesel, Robock claims.
Carbon-neutral and nontoxic, it can be refined anywhere (in your garage, for instance) so it doesn’t need to be trucked long distances. “And it biodegrades in 21 days,” he says, “whereas a diesel fuel spill is an environmental disaster.”
Robock, 57, knows what he’s talking about. He’s not just some tree-hugging ex-hippie trying to save the planet. Well, okay, he is. But he’s more than that. This tree-hugging ex-hippie actually works in the mainstream energy industry (something he has been doing for 30 years). He also runs Community Biofuels, a consulting, marketing, and manufacturing concern whose mission (according to the decidedly non-hippie-like language on its Web site) “is to commoditize the technology and business processes for locally manufacturing energy products from waste oil sources, specifically refining waste vegetable oil into biodiesel and bioheating oil.” And he has joined forces with other like-minded biofuel fans to form the Hudson Valley Biodiesel Cooperative, based in Cottekill.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to the ’60s.
From War Protestor to Energy Executive
In 1968, Robock was a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in anthropology and education (with utopian studies on the side). He was in Washington, D.C. protesting the Vietnam War when he got tear-gassed. But the gas didn’t affect him much, and he later discovered why: he was a vegetarian. Robock explains that tear gas affects the oils on the skin released during perspiration. Since vegetarians produce a different, milder oil, their skin reacts less to the gas than does the skin of their meat-eating companions. He turned this discovery into a research project, using early computer analysis (if you’re old enough to remember punch cards, you get the picture) to find out why his diet prevented a reaction to the gas. While pursuing master’s degrees in sociology and English at Columbia University, his self-taught computer skills led him to develop a software program used by the nutrition department at the university’s Teachers College.
So of course, after finishing graduate school, this counterculture radical with a knapsack full of liberal arts degrees went to work for a big energy company. “Hey, I needed a job,” he shrugs, “and no one knew much about computers back then.” He joined Westchester County-based RAD Energy in 1981, helping them computerize and automate their business. RAD was a traditional energy company, selling “the standard menu of petroleum and diesel products,” he says. “But they also offered alternative energy products such as ethanol, and they were the first company in the Northeast to sell ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. They tried to be good stewards in a dirty market.”
Robock also tried to stay clean in a dirty world. “I was a member of all kinds of alternative energy and lifestyle groups,” he says. “I was still involved in utopian ideals, and the environment was one of my causes. I lived eight miles from the Indian Point reactor and was active in trying to have it shut down.”
In 1984, biodiesel came into his life. “I saw a guy on Johnny Carson who had converted his VW Rabbit to run on French-fry oil. I had just bought the first Camry diesel. So I contacted him to learn how to blend diesel fuel and vegetable oil to run in a diesel engine. I ran my Camry on it.”
Robock worked for RAD until 2000, rising to the position of chief information officer. When the company was bought by another firm, Sprague Energy, he was ready for a change, so he started a California-based dot-com energy delivery company. It folded after two years, which he blames on consolidation in the energy industry.
He returned to Sprague Energy in 2003, and now runs the company’s terminal automation systems. But biofuels remain a passion; he started Community Biofuels in order to help private firms develop a workable business model for biodiesel.
The Co-op Scoop
He also joined a biodiesel listserv, exchanging E-mails with others in the Hudson Valley about alternative energy. They decided to form a cooperative in the fall of 2003, primarily to share the work involved in making biodiesel, but also “to be a public advocate for renewable energy and a learning center for the community,” Robock says.
The group found space in Cottekill and built its own biodiesel refinery, which runs off a grid using the building’s solar power. Currently, 15 active members pay a onetime $50 fee to provide the methanol and potassium hydroxide needed to make biodiesel. They also collect the waste vegetable oil, tend to the machinery, and perform administrative functions. In return, they can use the co-op’s biodiesel for a donation of $2 a gallon (about half the price of regular diesel). About 60 more people have signed up for the co-op’s mailing list. “We’re always looking for others,” he says.
The group has partnered with the Culinary Institute of America, Vassar College, SUNY New Paltz, and other large local institutions to collect their used cooking oil. For the third year in a row, they will once again collaborate with the grounds crew at the Dutchess County Fair this month to collect about 1,000 gallons of French-fry and fried-dough grease used during the fair.
He finishes this part of the story, then politely interrupts himself. “Sorry to end this, but I think my oil is ready,” he says, and dashes off to his garage to finish brewing his next batch of biodiesel.
From Fry Grease to Fuel
You don’t have to be a chemical engineer or invest in ExxonMobil-like refinery equipment to turn used cooking oil into fuel, Robock says. All you need is a used electric hot-water heater (Robock found his at the town dump), some basic plumbing supplies, and a couple of bucks worth of chemicals that can be found at your neighborhood hardware store. And the recipe is easy to follow.
First, fill the heater with 60 gallons of filtered oil and heat it to 140 degrees. While it is reaching that temperature, test the quality of the oil, using a simple chemistry kit, to determine how much potassium hydroxide needs to be added. (The amount of methanol is always 20 percent of the volume of the oil, so for 60 gallons of oil you’d need 12 gallons.) Combine those two chemicals, pump the mixture into the hot oil, stir, and let it cool. The ingredients react to form glycerin, which separates to the bottom, and biodiesel, which rises to the top.
Drain off the glycerin, wash the biodiesel with water to remove any remaining potassium hydroxide and methanol, and violà — biodiesel fuel, which can be used in any diesel engine either 100 percent as is or mixed with regular diesel fuel. “I use 100 percent biodiesel in my car, a 1995 Mercedes,” Robock says.
What about the glycerin? “At the co-op, we use it to make soap,” he says.
“We do not encourage people to do this at home,” Robock cautions. “We are available as a resource to people who are interested in learning more. We can help people learn to do it safely.”