News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 13, 2013

Doing a lot with a little: Family’s resourcefulness leads it to reuse vegetable oil as fuel

Hart family make soap with byproduct and teach practices overseas

Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Up a winding driveway, tucked off a main road in Clay County, sits an average-looking house in a hardwood forest. The homeowners, Chris and Lori Hart, are two resourceful people. They used the hardwood timber on their property to build the floors and walls in their home. And the cluster of steel drums sitting in their driveway is a hint of their ultimate quest in resourcefulness.

Used cooking oil propels family vehicles

The Hart family has agreements with local restaurants and delis to haul away their used cooking oil.

“Before I started taking the oil, they were paying to get rid of it. They were paying someone to have it hauled away like trash. I simply go in and say, ‘I would like to give you a better deal, I am going to take your stuff away for free. No paperwork for you or me to do. If you put it out, I will take it away,’ ” Chris Hart said.

Chris reuses the vegetable oil as fuel for his family’s vehicles. He says people can use straight vegetable oil in a vehicle with a diesel engine, but he doesn’t recommend it because it is hard on the engine. To thin the vegetable oil, Chris makes biodiesel, a process where he separates out the sugars that are naturally in triglyceride oil, to thin the oil so it can burn well in a diesel engine.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the idea of using vegetable oil for fuel has been around as long as the diesel engine. The most common sources of oil for biodiesel production in the United States are soybean oil and “yellow grease,” also known as recycled cooking oil from restaurants.

Biodiesel blends perform better than petroleum diesel, but its relatively high production costs and the limited availability of some of the raw materials used in its production continue to limit biodiesel’s commercial application.

The average person may spend $30 to $50 a week on fuel for a vehicle. For you, is that a small price to pay for convenience or a high price to pay for transportation?

“Say you are paying three dollars for a gallon of gas,” Chris said. “You may have had to earn five dollars before tax so that you have the three dollars left over. Fuel that I make is actually worth more to me than what I would have to pay at the pump because I would have to earn that money in the first place. Time is money but taxes have to be taken into consideration. I feel to me the fuel I make is worth more than the four dollars diesel at the pump because of the tax.”

Oil byproduct spawns family soap business

The Harts take what is left from making biodiesel and use it to make soap. Soap is made by treating vegetable or animal oils and fats with a strong alkaline solution. Fats and oils are composed of triglycerides; three molecules of fatty acids are attached to a simple molecule of glycerin. The alkaline solution is often lye.

“The process to make biodiesel and the process to make soap are very similar. When you make biodiesel you add alcohol, and when you make soap you add water. In both cases you use lye,” Chris said.

Because their soap stems from the biodiesel process, it has five times the amount of glycerin as normal homemade soap does. If you have ever purchased inexpensive soap before, it most likely contained a very low amount of glycerin (if any), which can leave hands feeling dry.

“Our soap is made from vegetable [fat], rather than from animal fat. That tends to make the soap a little softer. Because we use a biodiesel reaction, our bars are nearly half glycerin. Commercial soap often has most or all of the glycerin extracted. That is why their bars are hard, and that is why they can leave your skin dry. They pull out the glycerin for other uses,” Chris said.

Because the soap is made from soybean and canola oil and those seeds are brown, the soap Lori makes and sells is a light or dark color brown. The general reaction from the public when she showcases her product at area festivals is not always positive. Lori says, “they like green or purple, but green and purple are not natural. The gold or brown color is natural.” Other interesting things potential customers want to do is smell the soap first, not ask how well it cleans.

“We are very limited on what scents we can put in the bars because we use a hot process to make them. At a high temperature any natural scents we add evaporate out,” Lori said.

Resourcefulness Shared Overseas

Buying a mango fruit in the U.S. can cost a couple dollars. To think we are paying a couple dollars for a mango would suggest there is a high value for the fruit. But what value would it have to a farmer in Africa if he has no way of getting it on the market?

Enter the Harts. They have been taking their knowledge of resourcefulness and sharing it overseas. Their latest mission has been in Zambia, Africa. They have been working to get basic utility vehicles into remote areas. BUVs are a lot like all-terrain vehicles but with the inclusion of a trailer bed on the back. They are made of light material and designed to be used in the rugged rural areas in Africa. Africa does not have the road infrastructure set up to transport products from villages into major cities like the United States has. The idea behind the BUVs is, if enough villages have access to main roads, they can transport goods they grow in their own community and enter them into the market to make a profit.

“One time we were visiting a town across the river, too far away from an area to buy lunch, so we stopped and asked a villager if we could buy some of his mangoes for lunch. He laughed and laughed and thought it was one of the most ridiculous things he has ever heard, to buy mangoes. They literally have hundreds of thousands of tons of mangoes that rot each year. The mangoes are untapped wealth. The wealth is useless to them because they can’t turn it into anything other than mangoes. If they had a way of converting it to shoes or clothes, then it would become useful,” Chris said.

Fuel is double the price in Zambia compared with what we pay here in the U.S. The BUV uses one fourth the amount of fuel of a regular pickup truck and can be used on the same terrain. Furthermore, if the BUV were to break down, all of the parts can be found at a hardware store in Zambia. Additionally, the BUV engine runs on diesel, or can run on biodiesel.

“What we are trying to do is get ourselves in a position where we can manufacture the BUVs in Zambia along with biodiesel. But the vehicle is the primary thrust,” Chris said.

“We would like to teach them how to build the vehicle and grow the seeds to make the biodiesel and then make soap. Then you would have a female job and lots of male jobs,” Lori said.

Part of the Harts’ mission is to teach people — in this community and abroad — not to overlook resources they have and to see if those resources might have other purposes.

“We are taking things that are basically trash and turning them into very useful products for us and other people,” Chris said.

Together, the Harts believe people can make things go a lot farther if they pay attention to what they have and maintain it, instead of treating everything as if it is disposable.

For more information about the BUV, visit www.drivebuv.org, and to contact the Hart family, email iwantmoresoap@gmail.com.