Biofuels: Alaska’s new power plants?

Growing research may offer alternatives to fossil fuels in Alaska.

By Todd Paris


fireChris Garber-Slaght let out a slight groan as he hoisted a five-gallon jug of syrupy brown liquid and emptied it into a large, filter-lined funnel near eye level.

“This stuff’s pretty disgusting,” he said, turning his nose away from the source. “But it’s free.”

Garber-Slaght was in the midst of a twice-weekly stop at the filling station where he gets fuel for the 400-mile-a-week commute from his Fairbanks home to Eielson Air Force Base, where he teaches high school English. This particular “filling station” is in a south Fairbanks warehouse donated by ABS Alaska, and the “free” fuel he was filtering is waste vegetable oil, known as WVO, from a local restaurant.

Raw canola seeds.
Raw canola seeds.

“It takes a little time — we were here about 20 minutes to get five gallons of fuel,” he said on a cold November day. “And it takes a little effort. But I just put in five gallons, which sells for about $4 at the pump, so that’s $20 worth of fuel for free. Since I have more time than money these days, it works out pretty good for me.”

Garber-Slaght and his wife, Robbin, are members of Fairbanks Biodiesel, a nonprofit organization that encourages recycling and sustainable development through the local production and use of biofuels from WVO. The group is part of a growing movement to investigate and use various biofuels for transportation, electricity generation and space heating

The group has equipment that can produce both biodiesel and straight vegetable oil (SVO) from the same waste material, but biodiesel takes more time and money to produce and can only be used in the summer since it gels at low temperatures. (Biodiesel also requires an alcohol additive, most commonly methanol, which is expensive to buy and ship to Alaska, and the process produces a byproduct — glycerine — which can be a problem to dispose of.) Since Garber-Slaght is the only person in Fairbanks who uses SVO during the winter, he gets pretty much all the fuel he can use once the snow flies.

Canola has one of the highest oil contents of any domestic crop.
Canola has one of the highest oil contents of any domestic crop.

To get his Ford F-250 heavy-duty diesel pickup truck to run on SVO, Garber-Slaght spent about $1,000 on a kit that he attached underneath the truck’s bed. Since SVO has a higher freezing point than regular diesel, the alternative fuel has to be heated in a separate tank to keep it from gelling. The kit filters and preheats the oil on its way from the tank to the engine. Garber-Slaght said it takes about five minutes driving on traditional diesel before the recycled oil has warmed up enough to burn, but other than that he said it’s been smooth sailing.

“I converted to veggie oil back in early summer,” Garber-Slaght said. “So far I’ve driven about 7,000 miles and made trips to Anchorage, to Chitina and daily trips to Eielson without a single problem. Even at temperatures down to minus 10 degrees it’s been trouble-free. We’re good to go.”