Man or Genious-man?  Coco save the world!

Fried fuel
A man. A musician. A mission to save the world.     OCTOBER.02.03

To understand why Rob del Bueno goes around to restaurants asking for their used grease, you first have to know how he feels about George W. Bush.
As is the case with most 31-year-olds who make a living playing and recording louder-than-shit music, del Bueno -- aka Coco, the bassist for Man or Astro-man? and owner of Zero Return Studios -- hates the president. Hates Bush's going-war-to-get-oil-for-all-his-rich-butt-buddies ass.
"I try not to talk about it, but I can't help it sometimes. I was at this party the other night and I could hear this conversation going on about Bush and about the war and the dependency on foreign oil. And I just couldn't help it.

"I went over there and said, 'Do you drive a car?' The guy said, 'Well, uh, yeah.' I say, 'Then shut up!' People whine and bitch about the war and Bush, but they don't do anything about it. They just whine."

Del Bueno is doing something about it, DIY punk style.

He's turning spent restaurant grease into a fuel that runs in any diesel engine. It's easy, it's cheap, and it fits the same screw-the-man-I'll-do-it-my-own-damn-self mentality that led del Bueno to build one of Atlanta's busiest independent recording studios out of two enormous shipping containers.

Right now, del Bueno's operation is underground. He makes enough of the fuel, called biodiesel, for his car and six customers. He pushes his product to his friends and fans. The Man or Astro-man? website has this little plug on its main page: "Ever want to tell Bush, and the big oil companys to fu*k off?!... well check out Coco's latest endeavor ... It called Biodiesel, and there is a lot going on with it. get on board!"

But Coco/del Bueno has a much larger plan. He wants more than just a fleet of subversive punk-powered vehicles on the streets of Atlanta. He wants to be the father of Atlanta's biodiesel industry.

If he's successful, and it's looking as if he just might be, he'll clean up Atlanta's air, reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, and give Georgia farmers a better boost than any lame-ass Farm Aid show ever did.
That's why we're on the road, hurtling south down I-75 in a 1974 Mercedes-Benz, with a standard diesel engine, toward a meeting with none other than ex-Prez Jimmy Carter. And behind us, there's not the signature black cloud of your typical diesel, only the smell of the Earl's yummy French fries.For some reason, that must have something to do with the anti-authority and free-spirited nature of rock 'n' roll, many key players in the story of biodiesel are musicians -- successful ones at that.
For example, the guy who turned del Bueno on to the biodiesel movement is Paul Sprawl, the winner of last year's Eddie's Attic Open-Mic Shootout. Sprawl, a blues/folk musician from California, won a thousand bucks cash and two days of free recording at Zero Return Studios.

Sprawl hasn't recorded there yet, but when he checked out the studio last winter, he told del Bueno about Jaia Suri, a musician who tours in a truck that had been converted to run off of vegetable oil.
Suri, and everyone else who tours the country with nothing but a guitar, a dream and a trunk full of grease, got the down-low on veggie fuel through From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, a book by Joshua Tickell. Tickell, who isn't a musician but sure toured like one, rode across the country six years ago in a Winnebago fueled by grease donated by restaurants. (Just guess what he called the van. Now, it's a van fueled by used vegetable grease. If you didn't guess "the Veggie Van," then you're likely working in the White House.)

Tickell started his journey in Florida with a tankful from Long John Silver's, and ended it in California five months later. The dozens of news articles chronicling his trip in the Veggie Van marked the beginning of the biodiesel movement.

By now you're probably wondering how it is that vegetable-based fuels can power an engine built to run on a petroleum product. Time for a real quick history lesson.

When Rudolph Diesel unveiled his engine at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, it wasn't powered by the lie that is so-called "diesel fuel." It burned peanut oil.

After Diesel's death in 1913, oil industry executives figured out that his engine also could run on a byproduct of gasoline distillation. How convenient. The diesel was quickly co-opted by gasoline producers and now runs almost exclusively on their cheaper, incredibly dirtier, petroleum-based fuel.

It was easy for the oil companies. They were the ones that already had pumps on every street corner. Wait a minute. Actually, they're the ones that own the trucks and pipelines, the refineries and the bazillions of gas stations all over the world. And then there are the people who own most of the oil fields in the Middle East -- they love it that Americans buy SUVs that get shitty gas mileage. But they don't necessarily love Americans, do they? N-o-o-o. Not to mention those guys in the White House and their fondness for oil companies, and Iraq, and Haliburton's $2 billion contract, and Dick Cheney and blah blah blah.

Anyway, the point is that it's The Man who keeps alternative fuels like ethanol, hydrogen, natural gas and biodiesel from ever catching on.
But del Bueno plans to wrest away some of that control. He already makes biodiesel for himself and like-minded friends, and he figures this Plains trip is his first stop on the road toward building a fully functioning biodiesel industry in Georgia.

The University of Georgia Agriculture Department is bringing lawmakers and biodiesel experts together in Carter's southwest Georgia hometown for a summit to spur the creation of a biodiesel industry in Georgia. Del Bueno hopes to meet people there who've already accomplished what he wants to do.
We are staying in the slow lane. The car tops out at 75 mph because of the its age, not because of any shortcomings in biodiesel performance. But people are staring as they pass.

The Biodiesel Express is covered in magnets. One says, "Fuel made from vegetable oil = less landfill, cleaner water and supports regional farmers." Others say, "Lower emissions = clean air, domestic = no foreign oil, renewable = unlimited supply," and "Fueled with clean biodiesel!"

Del Bueno is oblivious to the gawkers. He's staring straight ahead and describing his vision. His very ambitious vision.

First of all, it includes biodiesel-powered trucks carrying large plastic tanks that canvas Atlanta. They collect used grease from every Chick-fil-A, Long John Silver's, McDonald's and every other restaurant that serves french fries in the metro area. Then, the grease is processed into biodiesel at VegEnergy world headquarters in Reynoldstown, which doubles as Zero Return Studios.

(Del Bueno now makes about 55 gallons a week. He's found a Hawaiian company that for $475,000 would build him a 500,000-gallon-a-year plant here in Atlanta. But that's not big enough for del Bueno. He wants to produce a million gallons a year, and in typical fashion, he suspects he could build it better and cheaper himself if he could just get his hands on the Hawaiian company's blueprints.)

Second, del Bueno pictures biodiesel-refueling stations in the parking lots of every Whole Foods in Atlanta, or maybe Sevananda, maybe both. Because biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable, the fueling stations will be unmanned. All you'll have to do is drive up under an elevated tank, swipe a card and start pumping.
Third, del Bueno sees a home delivery system. He'll drop off a 55-gallon drum equipped with a hand-pump and a fuel gauge in your driveway. Whenever the gauge shows the barrel close to empty, you'll call up VegEnergy and del Bueno'll drop off a full one.

Fourth, big companies, cities and the state fall in love with the concept of clean air and buy del Bueno's biodiesel. Coke and UPS will use biodiesel in their trucks. Norfolk Southern and CSX use it in their trains. MARTA uses it in buses. So will school systems. Eventually, he'll expand and start to use straight vegetable oil, grown and processed by Georgia farmers.
That's the plan anyway. Business dorks would call it "a vertically integrated business model." Just like the oil companies.

But, of course, there's a "but." There are several not-so-small "buts," in fact. For one, del Bueno doesn't have the half a million dollars stuffed away in one of his guitar cases.

Another "but" is air quality. While using biodiesel seriously reduces emissions of almost all the big pollutants, there is one pollutant that it increases. And it's a very important one. In fact, it's one of the major components of Atlanta's ozone smog problem -- it's called nitrogen dioxide. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study says biodiesel engines emit between 2 percent and 10 percent more Nox than regular diesel engines. Uh-oh.
The Nox stuff sucks for del Bueno, who somewhat over-optimistically argues that "biodiesel's advantages outweigh any slight disadvantage."

One of the many cool things about biodiesel, though, is that the scientist who's not too far off from solving its Nox problem lives right up the road in Athens. And he also just happens to be another big-time rocker.

By day, Dan Geller holds a masters in biological engineering and is a leading biodiesel researcher. At night, Geller is half of the electronica duo I Am The World Trade Center. Also, he's keyboardist for The Agenda, a garage/punk Ramones-sounding band. And Geller is the founder of Kindercore Records, which puts out his bands, plus Jet By Day, Maserati, Paper Lions and eight other groups that regularly kick Atlanta's ass.

Geller, who works for the University of Georgia's Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, already has helped solve one of the problems that oil companies -- specifically, Shell -- just love to point out as a drawback to biodiesel. Because the stuff is organic, bacteria can spoil biodiesel, making it unusable. Geller is using antioxidants to preserve the biodiesel. The good news is that the antioxidants are flammable. Even better is that, when combusted, they don't produce a single gram of pollution.

Geller is now seeking funding to study how to reduce Nox emissions. One quick fix would be to change the combustion timing of diesel engines. But that would mean reworking an infrastructure already in place.
"Our goal is to provide a fuel that works," Geller says. "It's a big issue for us. There's so much emphasis on solving that [Nox problem] because [every other type of pollution] is reduced."

Most of his published studies focus on things like chains of triglyceride-something-or-others and oil combustion/ viscosity levels, which is weird because he moves around UGA's mega-biolab the same way he works a stage. He moves fast, from one experiment station to another, not in the white-coat uniform of a lab geek, but in the requisite rocker uniform: jeans, sneakers, a vintage T-shirt and an intentionally indie shaggy mop.

Geller's authored or helped author, with professor John Goodrum, 10 studies on biodiesel. Once Geller's funding is in place, it shouldn't take him too long to solve the Nox problem. He's already poured over two studies that demonstrate Nox can be reduced.
His dream is identical to del Bueno's: biodiesel pumps all over the state, a vibrant rural economy, and less dependency on foreign oil.

"It's ready to go, no question," he says. "There're so many advantages to biodiesel, it's ridiculous."

But biodiesel has a long way to catch on in Georgia. Other alternative fuels, like ethanol and hydrogen, are supported by federal tax credits and other incentives -- stuff that's out of a researcher's (or a rock star's) hands.

In other states, lawmakers have done plenty to help biodiesel along. They've made it mandatory that every DOT bulldozer and school bus run on biodiesel; they've even mandated that every diesel engine in the state use a mixture of fuel that has at least 2 percent biodiesel.
The university's Department of Agriculture wants to plant the seeds for those kinds of incentives at the summit in Plains. Geller, unfortunately, couldn't make the trip. He was already scheduled to play the Reading and Leeds Festivals in England with the White Stripes, Blur and Beck. But he did say he wished he could go once he found out that cool people would be there.
With his fuel meter just above the half-full mark, del Bueno pulls into Plains. He doesn't even have time to look for a Jimmy Carter bobble-head doll before a pickup stops next to the Biodiesel Express.
Its driver asks del Bueno what's up with the magnet stickers. Turns out, the driver is Elliott Minor, an Associated Press reporter in town to cover the biodiesel summit. Minor rapid-fires questions at del Bueno and becomes the first of many to ask to smell the Mercedes' exhaust.

He takes a drag, asks del Bueno more questions and then calls out to a guy walking across the street: "Hey Brad, do you want to smell this guy's tailpipe?"
The guy is Brad Haire, who helped organize the summit. "No," he says, "I don't know him well enough for that."
Before long, a whole bunch of reporters are snorting del Bueno's tailpipe, peppering him with questions and scamming rides around the block in the Mercedes.

Websites for more information
The official site of the National Biodiesel Board has stats on biodiesel's environmental benefits, tracks biodiesel legislation, and lists cities, 
states, companies and schools that already use biodiesel.
The online headquarters for a nonprofit group pushing biodiesel on the grassroots level is also the place to order 
Joshua Tickell's how-to manual, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and lots of other biodiesel stuff.
Rock star Dan Geller plays with his obsession, biodiesel, in a UGA laboratory.
(Michael Wall)
Del Bueno with the former prez right after the press conference where nothing at all was announced.
(Michael Wall)
Rob del Bueno's website includes the basics on biodiesel, investment opportunities and contact info for del Bueno. 
The UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development's feasibility study on biodiesel production in Georgia, which lays out how much of A boost a biodiesel industry might give rural economies.
Meanwhile, a train full of bigwigs is chugging in from Cordele for the show. The state commissioners of insurance, natural resources, agriculture, and community affairs pour out, along with some of the General Assembly's most powerful rural legislators: House Speaker Terry Coleman, House Majority Leader Jimmy Skipper, Agriculture Chairman Richard Ray, and on and on.

It's kind of weird. Good ol' boys like Bob Hanner, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and state Sen. George Hooks of Americus, aren't exactly known as enviro-innovators.

But they're making their pilgrimage to Plains partly to check out the tourist train and partly to pay homage to Carter, who let's face it, is kind of like a hippie compared to his fellow south Georgia politicians.

Carter was a big advocate for solar power and windmills and all that other green stuff back when he was president. And he's a peanut farmer, so running diesel on vegetable oil is right up his alley.

He's also about the only politician who's ever given a speech that actually impressed del Bueno. In a 15-minute talk to about 70 politicians, reporters and biodiesel experts, Carter hits on all the virtues of biodiesel. Georgia farmers could lift rural areas out of the doldrums by growing crops that can be turned into oils for biodiesel production, he says.

"This is a renewable supply of energy, so that 100 years from now, or 200 years in the future, Georgia and the rest of the country will be increasingly independent of those uncertain supplies of oil.

"This is something that will never run out. It will always be a benefit environmentally, economically with jobs and for the basic improvement of our state."
It sounds practically like a biodiesel industry would be in place by the time we get back to Atlanta. Del Bueno is feeling pretty good.

But, in the press conference afterward, everyone's buzz wears off. Del Bueno stands in the back of the room and watches the politicians smile for the cameras with Carter. Welcome to another photo op.

I ask the former president if he recommends specific biodiesel legislation for the lawmakers to take back to next year's General Assembly. His answer, if that's what you want to call it, goes something like: Summits such as this one serve the purpose of bringing together industry leaders and lawmakers, so that progress can be made.

Someone asks Coleman a similar question. "This summit should be a collaborative effort to begin the process of starting to look at biodiesel as an option."

By the time we head back to the del Bueno Biodiesel Express, I've asked a dozen lawmakers if they're willing to commit to legislation requiring the state's vehicles to use some biodiesel. "Definitely consider" is the strongest answer I get.

Brad Haire seems a bit more enthusiastic. Before we can get into the car, he comes over and declares he knows del Bueno well enough now to smell his tailpipe. Impressed, and probably a little hungry, Haire asks del Bueno what he thought of the conference.
"I was pretty pleased with the entrepreneurial side of it. Those are the kinds of people that in the end, end up making things happen," del Bueno says.

"People need to stop waiting around for the government to do something to help them out and just do it themselves.

"If you can't get tax breaks or if you can't get a law requiring the state or schools to use it, then take it to companies -- Coke, or UPS or Chick-fil-A -- or to people who give a shit about air pollution, or wars over oil."

And that was that. The show was just a show after all, and nothing's really changed about del Bueno's vision. He's going ahead full speed, making contacts, looking for investors and collecting used grease from restaurants. He remembers it's Tuesday -- the day he's supposed to pick up the Earl's grease. So we'd better get our butts into the car.

The train, loaded up with all the lawmakers and industry representatives, starts up. Black smoke from the train's own dirty diesel engine shoots above Plains' downtown. Del Bueno pulls out onto Plains' main drag and begins the drive back to smog-ridden Atlanta.