everyday SCIENCE An Environmental Pioneer at Work

Gabe Schwartzman is passionate about the environment. Growing up in suburban Maryland, where driving is a way of life, he has become increasingly concerned about the impact of car emissions on the environment. So he decided that he could make a difference by becoming self-sustaining in one area of his life. With some input from his cousin, Schwartzman set out to learn how to produce biodiesel fuel, which is made from oil left over after frying food.

“My cousin sent me a book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, which explains how to make your own fuel,” Schwartzman explains. After reading and rereading this book, as well as spending several months researching the subject and identifying a supplier (a local Chinese restaurant), Schwartzman began production.

Gabe pours his homemade biofuel into a jug as he prepares to fill up his car.

Gabe pours his homemade biofuel into a jug as he prepares to fill up his car.

In the basement of his parents’ house, Schwartzman set up a makeshift lab. Wearing a leather apron, gloves, and goggles, he began the rather messy process of making biodiesel fuel. After separating the food remains left in the oil, he measured the pH. “It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought,” Schwartzman admits. “Figuring out the correct pH for each container of oil took a lot of time.”

Although the process was frustrating, it never occurred to him to give up. “I was determined to find out whether biodiesel fuel was an option for suburban drivers,” says Schwartzman. He also was confident that he could succeed because he had worked on projects like this before. “He built a rickshaw when he was only 13,” his mother remarks. “Once he sets his mind to something, there’s no stopping him.”

Schwartzman made his own fuel for a while and saved quite a bit of money; it cost only a dollar to fill up the tank of his 1980 Volvo. But after making the fuel for several months, Schwartzman abandoned the project. “My car died, but I also decided that biodiesel fuel wasn’t the best option for drivers in busy metropolitan areas,” he explains. “The process is time-consuming, and the fuel needs are too great. But I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t seen the project through to the end. I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot.”

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