Biodiesel project has transportation, food production goals

Gabriola’s waste vegetable oil is on its way to fuelling transportation and heating greenhouses, thanks to the efforts of Island Futures and a Regional District of Nanaimo grant.

The non-profit was one of six organizations who received 2023 zero waste funding from the RDN. The $22,800 grant will support exploring repurposing waste vegetable oil from restaurants into biodiesel and heating fuel for a community greenhouse.

Island Futures received $2,500 in 2022 to commission a report on the potential uses and marketability of biodiesel and its byproducts. The latest round of RDN funding will make it possible to purchase a heater and centrifuge and hire a project manager.

With training from Island Futures members, Gulf Island Food Transport (GIFT) will process the waste vegetable oil into biodiesel for use in its Sprinter van instead of fossil-fuel diesel. The Gabriola Agricultural Co-op will experiment with heating a greenhouse, through the use of the to-be-purchased heater, to grow produce over winter.

Biodiesel production requires methanol and lye, which will be purchased off-island. While production of biodiesel is still costly, over a dollar a litre, Island Futures board director Fay Weller said, it’s still less than regular diesel. Materials costs and supply chain challenges mean there is an unpredictable factor at play, but Weller said the use of the waste vegetable oil as a heating fuel holds great promise as it doesn’t need refining beforehand.

What to do with the methanol recovered during the conversion of the fats will also need to be investigated.

“The hope would be that we could get it to a stage where it would be pure enough to put back in and use for the biodiesel, but at this point we’re recognizing that might be not that easy and so there are other kinds of uses that we would be looking at,” Weller said.

Biodiesel production also produces a glycerin byproduct. Using the centrifuge, the glycerin will be purified to produce soap, something Island Futures already has experience with, and other cleaning products, which will be sold to the public, potentially even off-island, with the intention that it will generate enough income to cover the costs of labour and production beginning in 2024.

There is also potential to extract potassium salts from the used lye for use as a fertilizer though questions remain on that front, such as whether it would be considered organic.

“That’s a potential product but it might not be the one we end up going with,” Weller said.

“I think the question is exploring each of these different ideas that came out of the report in terms of the glycerin byproduct. Without even purifying it, except for recovering the methanol, the glycerine byproduct works quite well when you’re making soap from it.”

The project manager and a marketing consultant will be charged with determining which products are viable.

“This is one of the advantages of getting this funding is that we’ll be able to get that kind of expert advice in terms of what to do with products,” Weller said.

From 2016 to 2021, Island Futures produced biodiesel out of 7,000 litres of waste vegetable oil from Gabriola’s restaurants for use in the GERTIE buses. Vehicle changes meant the bus service could no longer use the biodiesel. As Island Futures develops its production system in the coming months, soon restaurants and those with waste vegetable oil they’d like to donate to the project will have the opportunity to do so once again.

Rachelle Stein-Wotten, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder