Rumson resident turning used vegetable oil into motor vehicle fuel
The makeshift refinery in her garage didn’t surprise Polly Schildge. The Rumson resident was used to her son’s science experiments.
"He was making fuel in our garage," recalled Schildge. "He added lye and methanol to vegetable oil using my blender, my funnels, all my household stuff, and big buckets of oil he was bringing home from Wendy’s and McDonald’s."
The concoction being brewed by Ronald Schildge was a batch of biodiesel, an environmentally friendly fuel alternative he believes will benefit the environment and ensure a sustainable future.
"I made my first batch of biodiesel fuel when I was working during the summer at Sickels Farm in Little Silver," explained Schildge, a graduate of High Technology High School in Lincroft.
Schildge learned about the fuel alternative from a friend who also worked at Sickels, and who introduced him to the work of Joshua Tickell, a proponent of biodiesel and author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel.
Currently a senior at Middlebury (Vt.) College, Schildge’s advocacy of used vegetable oil as an ecologically and economically viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels has been recognized by grants from the college’s Environmental Council as well as the National Wildlife Federation, and was highlighted in the April issue of the environmental magazine Natural New England.
Using Tickell’s pamphlet as a guide, Schildge converted his diesel-powered 1990 VW Jetta into a test vehicle powered by biodiesel and got 40 miles to the gallon while satisfying his commitment to improving the environment.
"I made the fuel from that booklet, and tried it on my car when I was a junior in high school," he said. "I drove on that and diesel fuel that summer."
The biodiesel Schildge mixed is gaining wide acceptance as an alternative fuel designed to function as either an additive or a replacement fuel for diesel engines, and requires only minor engine modifications.
Petroleum-free biodiesel offers important benefits for the environment including a 78 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, explained the literary studies and political science major. And, since it can be produced from domestic, renewable sources such as soybeans, it can boost the United States economy and decrease dependence on foreign oil imports.
"I’ve always been interested in environmental issues," explained Schildge, who remembers addressing an assembly of youth delegates while attending a United Nations conference on environmental issues with his fourth-grade classmates from Deane-Porter School.
Polly Schildge recalled there were early signs that her son also had a genius for tinkering with science.
"He was always taking things apart," she explained. "The first computer we had, Ron had it in pieces on the floor. We would walk into the room to use the computer, and would not be able to because it was open with parts spilling out and pieces all over the sofa. Later, we would go back in and see that it was duct-taped back together again.
"A repair guy came once," she continued. "He said, ‘He’s very good at this, so don’t be too mad at him. He knows what he’s doing. He may have trashed your computer, but what he did in here is really amazing.’ "
At Middlebury, Schildge became involved with promoting alternative fuels, working initially with an electric vehicle, then decided to promote the benefits of biodiesel.
Encouraged by the college’s environmental coordinator, Schildge applied for and received an environmental grant that allowed him to begin investigating potential uses for the fuel on campus.
He enlisted the facilities management staff to make a processor tank for the manufacture of biodiesel, then worked out an agreement with the college’s dining services to convert waste vegetable oil from the kitchens into the fuel.
This spring, Schildge received a grant from the National Wildlife Federation, which named him a Campus Ecology Fellow.
The grants have enabled Schildge to create an operating refinery for the production of biodiesel fuel and run a test vehicle on campus. He also gives demonstrations at local schools and community events.
"I got $1,200 from the college to continue working on biodiesel, and I put it toward making a larger-scale refinery," he said. "It sounds complicated, but it’s just a large drum on stilts with an impeller going down the center to mix it up and a drain at the bottom. I told them I would run a car on it."
His NWF grant had an outreach component, and Schildge fulfilled it by providing educational programs to the school and community. He has given talks and demonstrations at community events, such as Earth Day celebrations, and led workshops at the college.
"A lot of people know me as the biodiesel guy," he said.
Schildge was happy to find he wasn’t the only biodiesel advocate with a booth at a local Earth Day event in April.
"I had my car running on biodiesel, and another guy from Vermont Technical College had a car running on straight vegetable oil," he said. "It was huge to talk to somebody else working on a similar project."
During a semester last fall at the University of Cape Town in Johannesburg, South Africa, Schildge explored the possibility that biodiesel production could serve as an economic engine to help desperately poor residents there.
"I asked around to find someone involved in biodiesel research and stumbled upon Dr. Harro von Blottnitz,’’ he said. "I ducked into his office and said I was looking for someone interested in working on a project on biodiesel. He said, ‘I’m the person you’re looking for.’ He was very interested. I set up equipment and made a few batches, and he got two senior chemical engineering students to write a thesis on the possibility of creating a micro-enterprise of a small-scale biodiesel plant.
"The idea was that we would empower people who basically had nothing," he explained. "People are living in shanties around the cities. These people are willing to do anything. Their children are raised with no education. The AIDS rate is incredibly high. It’s a bleak picture."
The research looked at whether people in the community could obtain vegetable oil that was high enough in quality to be made into biodiesel.
"If they could use the process to make biodiesel and sell it to taxi and minibus drivers, a micro-enterprise would be created for a small group of people with the possibility of expansion in the future," he explained.
While in South Africa, Schildge volunteered to teach Cape Town children about the environment.
"It was tough because what they need and what I was giving them seemed askew," he acknowledged. "I was talking about how to save the environment, and these children needed someone to save them."
Promoting the fuel alternative, Schildge believes, is a way to benefit the environment and offer a better future to disadvantaged populations.
"Hopefully a lot of people working together can make a difference. That’s what the work in Cape Town was all about," he said.
"I’m not doing this so I can just further a chemical process. I’m here so I can change the world."