It was a winning combination: Willie Nelson and Hawaii.
That’s where Dan Halen found his inspiration, anyway.
The local high school teacher and musician was vacationing “green” in the US’s 50th state. While bombing around the islands in bio-diesel cars, he made a discovery: Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co.
Backed by the legendary country star, the Texas-based company converts vast quantities of used cooking oil into clean-burning fuel, mainly marketed to truckers.
The fuel is called BioWillie.
While Halen had been interested in producing biodiesel for years, the trip inspired him to launch the process in the Yukon as soon as he returned.
“Willie Nelson runs his whole crew and tour off biodiesel,” said Halen, walking down a muddy stretch of road on his Takhini property.
While celebrity status and millions in the bank give Nelson’s company a firm push into the limelight, wealth is measured by how you use it, said Halen.
“Unless you’re doing something with your wealth, you’re totally wealthless.”
With a sense of thrift and a knack for the technical, Halen is about to create a wealth of biodiesel, from inside his workshop.
A bumpy, sun-drenched ride up a narrow dirt road, Halen’s shop stands sparse and clean.
Along one wall two 170-litre drums and a water heater are connected by a series of tubes, hoses and valves.
The Appleseed reactor, as it is known in the industry, converts used cooking oil into fuel.
The process is simple, according to Halen.
When it’s up and running, sometime during the coming week, the process should go like this.
First he collects the oil from local restaurants.
Monday afternoon the pick-up spot was Alice’s Restaurant, on Centennial Street beside the Casa Loma.
Back at the shop, the oil is filtered twice, first, through a screen to catch large pieces of food, then through a piece of denim.
“This filtres the oil down to about 10 microns,” Halen added.
This means there are no particles larger than one thousandth of a millimetre left in the oil.
The dark brown liquid is poured into the first drum, which is painted blue with the words “filtered veggie oil” written in black marker.
Different kinds of oil can be poured in together, as heat is added to blend them and separate out water.
A valve drains any water that collects at the bottom, while the oil, which is lighter, rises to the top.
The warm liquid is siphoned off through a dark green hose, into the 185-litre water heater.
“We’ve got the mystery blend,” said Halen.
The oil is heated to about 51 Celsius and lye, a common ingredient in soap, and methyl hydrate, a chemical used in anti-freeze, are added to the mix.
“You need to thin the oil out,” said Halen.
While vegetable oil alone can be used to run a diesel engine, it needs to be warmed up first. Otherwise the liquid is too thick.
By adding lye and methyl hydrate, the oil no longer needs to be heated.
After an hour, the mixture settles.
“It’s like a jelly dessert, in layers,” said Halen.
On the bottom is a goopy layer of glycerine, or soap. The biodiesel is resting on top.
All that’s left to do is “bubble wash” it.
At six hours a wash, this is the most time-consuming phase.
In the final drum, painted dark green, clean water is bubbled up through the oil to catch any rogue shreds of glycerine.
With the Appleseed set to produce biodiesel, Halen will be able to power his house, his mother’s house and an outdoor hot tub with the remnants of a deep-fryer.
Halen’s two generators — Big Blue, an oilrig generator that weighs almost a tonne, and Thumper, a silver and black generator from 1936, are currently running on canola oil.
By 2008, Halen hopes to turn his diesel processor into pocket money.
Once his brand of biodiesel is perfected, Halen plans to sell his fuel and teach Yukoners how to build their own Appleseed.
“I think that’s two years down the road,” he said, noting it would likely be seasonal since biodiesel get sludgy in cold temperatures.
“It’s still experimental.”
Like his processor and generators, Halen’s fledging operation already has a name, Green Bean Biodiesel.
“One more bean couldn’t hurt us,” he said with a laugh, noting the prevalence of bean-named businesses in the Yukon.
Bringing biodiesel to the territory is a philosophical and practical pursuit.
A recent trip south of the 49th parallel highlighted how chocked and emission-filled many cities are.
“We are absolutely doomed by money and ignorance,” said Halen.
“The majority of people down there are not showing responsibility or accountability for their actions.”
Tackling those overwhelming issues starts at home, he added.
“The whole global thing, you really have to act locally,” he said from the front seat of his 1981 yellow Toyota.
“The best way to be a teacher is to learn yourself.”