St. Johns County, Fla., fleet maintenance manager Gary Emerson's method of using waste vegetable oil to generate biodiesel has attracted attention from the media, and from public works agencies across the country. Photo: St. Johns County

Skyrocketing diesel costs have fleet managers across the country in a lather. One innovative solution has led to lowered costs and environmental benefits—and a lot of attention.

Gary Emerson, fleet maintenance manager for St. Johns County, Fla., had long wanted to do something that would help ease the nation's dependence on foreign oil, benefit the environment, and ease budget strain. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spurred him to action, and he launched his biodiesel pursuit in earnest.

“I read an article about some retired professor in the mountains of Georgia using waste cooking oil for diesel,” said Emerson. “From there I began doing further research and got the blessing of my boss, Joe Stephenson, public works director, to begin the project.”

After months of experimentation in a tiny shed adjacent to the county's public works complex, Emerson generated a technique that turns waste vegetable oil into usable fuel by mixing it with methanol and sodium hydroxide. In eight to 10 hours, the process generates a batch of 80% biodiesel and 20% glycerin. The biodiesel generated is completely biodegradable and generates exhaust fumes that are environmentally friendly. The fuel costs $1.25 per gallon to produce, approximately half the cost of conventional diesel. In addition, the glycerin byproduct can be used as tar remover, replacing a product that currently costs the county $25 per gallon.

According to Emerson, the whole county is pitching into the biodiesel mission, with area restaurants, schools, jails, and citizens contributing. “We have made our biodiesel program a county-wide community effort,” he said. “Most people realize that this project is not only a recycling initiative; it has environmental and economic benefits as well.”

Cost-conscious fleet managers from across the country have taken notice, turning to St. Johns County for assistance and advice. Emerson has responded by helping them convince elected officials in their respective municipalities to see the light and approve funding for similar biodiesel programs. Also, Emerson's department has agreed to provide biodiesel to agencies without resources to produce their own, if they simply bring in their own waste vegetable oil. His aim: to produce a total of 60,000 gallons of biodiesel this year, one-fifth of the fleet's total annual diesel fuel usage.

The success of the project spawned an official Fleet Fuel Department, headed by Emerson. In October of this year, county commissioners approved a plan to give Emerson's team $125,000 to purchase larger tank reactors, a larger facility, and a full-time technician to assist with the work. The goal is to increase the county's biodiesel production from 30 to 300 gallons per day.

As much success as his labors have seen, Emerson is not yet satisfied. “I have been working on a derivative of the biodiesel product, which is showing great promise as a weed/grass killer,” he said. “It kills bugs, spiders, mosquitoes, and bees as well.”