Biodiesel Power

Honk if you know the person who brewed your car's fuel.


Pose that question in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and you’re likely to hear a symphony of Volkswagens and Mercedes proudly tooting their local laborers.

In Pittsboro, “Drive Local” has become the new “Eat Local.”

Piedmont Biofuels co-founders with Willie Nelson.  Photo courtesy Tami Schwerin
Willie Nelson poses with Piedmont Biofuels co-founders while filling his tour bus with biodiesel. Photo courtesy Tami Schwerin

It all started about a decade ago when Lyle Estill, Rachel Burton and Leif Forer  began making biodiesel in Lyle’s backyard. Their goal was simple: make enough fuel so they no longer had to fill up at gas stations. Their DIY spirit -- coupled with a genuine desire to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels -- inspired the threesome to launch Piedmont Biofuels, a small-scale biodiesel manufacturing company.


Located in bucolic North Carolina, about 30 minutes outside of Raleigh, the company offered a novel product: clean, local, and sustainable fuel for Pittsboro’s diesel-powered vehicles. Ten years (and a few exploded reactors) later, Piedmont Biofuels manufactures a million gallons of B-100, or 100 percent biodiesel, annually for its more than 300 members.

Can It Work for You?
Right now you may be wondering what biodiesel is and if you can use it in your new Jetta TDI. Forer explained, “Biodiesel is an alternative diesel fuel made from vegetable oil instead of crude petroleum oil. Biodiesel can be used wherever conventional petroleum diesel is used.” Estill, who hasn’t been to a gas station since 2002, says any diesel engine can run on biodiesel without any modification. “You simply fill up and go.”

Used vegetable oil is turned into 100% Biodiesel through a process called transesterification. Photo by David Huppert

Green Chemistry
Piedmont’s biodiesel is made with a chemical process called transesterification. The process begins when feedstocks -- anything from soybeans to turkey fat to used vegetable oil -- are mixed with methanol in the presence of a catalyst, such as potassium hydroxide. The result is clean-burning fuel made from mostly locally sourced byproducts. No need to extract petroleum from Earth’s crust, no offshore oil tankers, and no refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The main feedstock in Piedmont’s blend comes in the form of used cooking oil from the deep fryers in local restaurants. This “yellow grease,” as it’s called, is in high demand and functions as a relatively clean, stable base for biodiesel. But it’s expensive, and Piedmont is constantly on the lookout for cheaper sustainable feedstocks.

From Grease Traps to Greased Lightning
Walk around Piedmont’s sprawling farm-meets-lab campus and pretty soon you realize that you’re surrounded by innovators. From seed-saving farmers to enzyme-incubating scientists, everyone is looking to make a big difference using low-impact techniques.

Burton and Estill working on an early batch of home-brewed biodiesel in Estill's backyard. Photo courtesy Tami Schwerin

One thing that has the whole place jumping is the new enzymatic reactor. Burton, who helped design the one-of-a-kind reactor, says the new technology will enable biodiesel manufacturers to utilize a wider range of feedstocks, such as brown grease (think sludgy grease traps). Under the current workflow, brown grease is too contaminated to turn into biodiesel. Manufactures pay a premium for high-quality yellow grease, and the cost is reflected in their fuel’s price (Piedmont’s fuel usually sells around 10 cents above the petroleum average). The price point is why the enzymatic reactor has the potential to be a game changer. By using lower quality (and cheaper) grease, biodiesel manufacturers may soon see costs drop to the point where they can consistently compete with their petroleum counterparts.

But as Estill says, his hope is not necessarily to outsell big oil in small towns throughout North Carolina.  The Piedmont Biofuels project is “demonstrative,” proving that communities can power themselves with a few local ingredients, and a lot of ingenuity.

Estill, who's official title is VP of Stuff, collects used vegetable oil from Carolina Brewery in Pittsboro, NC. Photo by David Huppert