“Sitting in a rice paddy one day in 1995, I watched a Viet Cong soldier pour vegetable oil into his tractor,” says David Sieg, co-author of the Down and Dirty Guides to Making Biodiesel.
Sieg is the subject of BPGL’s first interview, with environmental pioneers, leaders in some aspect of the green movement, writers, inventors, visionaries, and “regular” people, who are putting the principles of “organic, green, and natural” to work in their daily lives. BPGL asked Sieg to talk about how he first got interested in biofuels. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
SIEG: Keep in mind, this was a time when Vietnam and the U.S. were still technically enemies. [BPGL note: On July 11, 1995, President Clinton declared that the U.S. would normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam, breaking a 20-year standoff.] The farmer was a relative of my future wife, whose family included soldiers on both sides of the conflict. He was one of the rich farmers who could afford a tractor. He couldn’t afford to buy fuel for it, though. I asked him what he was doing, and he explained the tractor would run on vegetable oil, but wouldn’t start on it. So, he used a little bit of diesel to start it, then switched over to vegetable oil. That was my introduction to biofuels. Later, I learned this was something both the Allies and the Nazis had used in World Wars One and Two, which is where the Viet Cong picked it up.
No one had even heard of biofuels or biodiesel at the time. I was hooked. Of course, there was very little information regarding biofuels. But, for me, this was where the foundation was laid. I studied everything I could get my hands on. Later, I found out that Rudolph Diesel invented his engine to be run on vegetable oil as a means for farmers to always have their own fuel supply.
Once the Internet came about, I was able to study biofuel a lot more in depth from some of the true pioneers. I made lots of trips overseas, shared what I knew, and word got around. In around 2004 or so, I returned to Vietnam, thinking at the time that I would live there. It was easy to see, at that point, that the whole energy system was unsustainable and would soon be in crisis. I knew from experience that the hardest hit would be the third world.
BPGL: When you moved back to Vietnam, you became something of a local expert. Tell us about that.
SIEG: I started teaching at a technical college in Vietnam. People soon approached me about what I knew about biofuels. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a pro. I was just a guy whose hobbies included alternative energy. The school asked me if I could make enough biodiesel to run their generators. I was sure I could, so I did. My students and others got involved. They told their parents, many of whom were business owners. Soon I was consulting on lots of projects. This led to using different kinds of oils, like catfish oil, palm oil, etc. And that led — eventually — to algae.
BPGL: You and your wife, Tram Nguyen, have authored a series of books about biodiesel. What motivated you to write about the topic?
SIEG: I started writing about biodiesel simply because, at the time, there was very little “down and dirty” information about it. I mean, I just wanted information I could use, now. I didn’t care about the politics or the technical reasons. It didn’t matter. I just needed hard-hitting information that I could immediately put to use. It started out as my own notes and grew.
The lack of information was even worse about algae biodiesel. There was really no information about it at all. It was brand new and cutting edge. It still is. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use any other information or draw on research of my own. I was working for someone else and confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements pretty much forbade even talking about it. This meant I had to start over. What saved me was that most of the information I had drawn on were public records or studies conducted by the U.S. government that were in the public domain. I was able to recreate a lot of info from that, putting what I knew into it as I went along, adding to it where more explanation or details were needed.
BPGL: Your research covered many different types of oils. Is there one that stands out as more efficient as a fuel, not from a producing point of view, but from an engine point of view? Which provides the best engine efficiency?
SIEG: To me there is no right or wrong answer. Different feedstocks can be used in different places, for different things, for different reasons. In a particular location, one feedstock may be better than another, but there is no “hands down” winner in my opinion. It’s like asking, “Which is better, penicillin or ampicillin?” It really depends on which one you need, right? For example, palm oil is a great feedstock. But in northern climates it gels faster when it gets cold than canola (rapeseed). Does that mean rapeseed is better? That depends on if you live in Europe where it is cheap and plentiful. If you live in Asia, where rapeseed is not that plentiful, or cheap, and the temperatures are warm, then maybe palm oil is better.
Come to Iowa, and I’m sure people here will tell you corn or soybean oil is the best. If however, you can’t abide using food crops for fuel, then neither is any good. Of course, waste oil is a good choice. But the problem with that is, “waste” oil is no longer a “waste”; it has now become a commodity. So the profit advantage from that is now gone, or is shrinking fast.
BPGL: From all that I have read, algae presents the most promising future — high oil content, high number of crops per year and barrels per acre, non-food source, etc. What is your opinion of the future of algae as fuel?
SIEG: Excellent. It has the POTENTIAL to solve a lot, if not all, of our fuel problems. However, there are still lots of hurdles to overcome in producing it commercially. I’d say we are at least two to four years from doing so. But we’re getting there.
BPGL: I understand you’re planning to build a small biodiesel production facility. What fuel source will you use? Cooking oil? Algae? Something else?
SIEG: Algae is cutting-edge, for sure, and still in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether it can become commercially viable. Truthfully, at this point I want to use junk grain. Corn, soybeans, anything that is being thrown out, and/or used as cattle feed. The whole point of alternative energy is to use what is being thrown out, a waste source, and/or free source — such as solar, wind, or geothermal — to create something valuable either from nothing or from trash. You can’t, however, interfere with the food crops. This is a compelling reason some people are using to trash alternative fuels — and they’re correct. It makes no sense to feed engines and furnaces at the expense of food.
However, fuel is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The disease is called the “Internal Combustion Engine.” If we could move beyond the internal combustion engine (and we can) the entire peak oil crisis becomes moot. It would solve the entire fuel debate in a heartbeat.
But my uses will be personal and small scale. I’ll use it to run a generator, maybe a truck. I’ll also be experimenting with sugar beets to distill biogasoline. I’m hoping to be able to do it from household waste or a small energy farm. We’ll see. I have no desire to do it commercially.
BPGL: You said the word “experimenting.” This implies research. Directed toward efficiency? Different sources? Perhaps data for your next book?
SIEG: What I want to do at this point in my life is show people they can become completely energy independent, and do so in ways that doesn’t mean reading by candlelight or eating Spam out of can. To be as comfortable as we are now by re-directing our energies in different way. This can be done NOW. Not 10 years into the future. The technologies are here. It is our thinking which is getting in the way. You can easily eliminate almost 75 percent to 85 percent of your utility bills simply by doing small week-end projects and changing your thinking. You can eliminate it completely using solar and/or wind energy. So I’m looking to buy an old farm house on 10 acres, and make it produce all it’s own energy. Not everyone can buy an old farm, I agree. But everyone could eliminate their utility bill by making small changes in thinking, and very little elbow grease.
BPGL: You were a teacher of bio energy alternatives when you were in Vietnam. Do you intend to teach at a college or junior college here in the States?
SIEG: No. To teach here would mean to be constantly defending every breath you take to fools. Publishing papers for the sake of publishing papers. Life is too short. Why not talk to people who want to listen, rather than trying to convert those who don’t? Let life itself convince them.
SIEG: It’s not that simple, and too many factors come into play. There also isn’t a “one-size-fits-all,” or a “paint-by-numbers” method of doing it. What you have to remember is that using algae for oil isn’t a “static” process like mixing biodiesel. Algae is not an inert material, it’s a life form.
Biodiesel is a pretty straightforward process: Mix “A” into “B,”,then mix “A” + “B” into “C” to make “D.” People make the mistake that making fuel from algae is the same process. Algae, however, is a “dynamic” process, meaning it changes all the time. Introducing a life form into the equation forces that change. The capacity for variation is almost endless. To that end, trial and error, in any personal situation, is almost guaranteed.
But to answer your question, an individual can start by getting any local strain of algae and see if they can make it produce and reproduce. It’s not easy to mimic nature, not even for a one-celled organism. The complexities of even simple organisms are staggering. But that would be the beginning of the journey. After that, they need to find an oil-bearing strain of algae, and see if they can get that to reproduce. Sounds simple, right? I mean after all, the stuff will grow in your birdbath. Give it a try. Easier said than done.
BPGL: Tell me about your Down and Dirty series of eBooks.
SIEG: They cover just about everything you need to know about biodiesel at this point. My books are more expensive than most and they’re worth it.
BPGL: Who is your target audience? Who do you think needs these books?
SIEG: Anyone who believes in thinking globally and acting locally, anyone who wants to make a difference in the environment, anyone who believes that oil companies don’t have to be our natural destiny, anyone who wants to be energy independent, anyone who doesn’t believe in wars for oil. In short, just about everyone, sooner or later.
In my next set of eBooks, I’ll be getting away from biofuels (sort of) and concentrating on making people energy independent. Like I said, it’s possible. I’m going to show people how.
BPGL: Describe your average reader.
SIEG: Describe your average person. About 75 percent of my customers are from the USA, I’d say 10 percent from the EU, or Australia, and about 15% from everywhere else.
BPGL: Why is it so important for people to have this information? How is this information going to help the planet?
SIEG: Change is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. I think most thinking people understand this now. Either we have to take a pro-active step in cleaning up the global consequences of climate change, or Mother Nature will do it for us. The first step, once again, is going to be weaning ourselves off of hydrocarbon fuels. Then, second, taking away the nipple of the internal combustion engine. Period. End of story. If we don’t, then history is full of lost civilizations and we’ll become another one of them. I’m not trying to be “Doom and Gloom” about this, but to me anyway, at this point the outcome is pretty clear. We either clean up the mess, or we suffer with it. I don’t see a third choice.
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