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In Fish Fry Season, Oil Finds Another Use as Homemade Fuel

Grant Gerlock /Harvest Public Media
Gregg Hellbusch, left, drops a load of fish into the fryer. The church will go through more than 200 lbs. of frozen fish filets in one night.

During the season of Lent, many Catholics don't eat meat on Fridays. Fish, though, is considered fair game, so the Friday night fish fry has become an annual tradition at churches across the country.  Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter you’ll find hundreds of hungry parishioners lining up at church fish frys around the Midwest.  All of that frying uses up vegetable oil that can just go to waste, but there are some people putting it to good use.

Friday Night Tradition

At a recent Friday night fish fry at North American Martyrs, a Catholic church in Lincoln, Neb., 800 people ate more than 200 pounds of fried fish.

Credit Grant Gerlock /Harvest Public Media
Leroy Forbes collects used vegetable oil from 4 fish fries in Lincoln, Neb. He uses the oil to make his own biodiesel during the summer months.

When all of the frying from six Fridays is done this season, the church will be left with around 150 gallons of oil to dispose of. The church could pay a recycler to pick it up, or dump it in the landfill. Instead, the workers dump the used oil in a barrel for Leroy Forbes.

Forbes works for the Burlington-Northern railroad on a track repair crew. But this time of year he spends his Friday nights traveling to four Lincoln fish fries, stocking up on used vegetable oil for his hobby: making homemade biodiesel.

As lights turn out at North American Martyrs, Forbes rumbles up in his tall, black Ford diesel truck. He backs up to the barrel filled with used oil and dips in a wand connected to a hose, pumping the hot oil into a barrel in the back of his truck.

“(I) suck it up from one barrel into the other barrel, because when these things are full, they weigh more than what I can lift,” Forbes says.

When the church barrel is empty, Forbes has another 20 gallons of oil to take home to his garage, where he converts the fry oil to diesel fuel.

Forbes is a self-taught bio-refiner, with help form a neighbor who had experience. It’s not rocket science, Forbes says, but it is chemistry. First, he heats the vegetable oil. Then he adds methyl alcohol (methanol). Finally, he adds a chemical catalyst such as potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide (lye), and stirs.

“What I basically do is strip the glycerin molecule off of the triglycerides and I put a methanol in there and make, I believe it’s called methyl esters,” Forbes said. “And that’s where you get the biofuel.”

It may be more work than it’s worth financially, but Forbes enjoys the hobby. And by Easter, he’ll have enough oil to run his truck and a diesel VW Beetle all summer.

“I’m guessing (I’ll have) right around 500 gallons,” Forbes said. “This is really a blessing.”

Environmental Concern

Credit Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media
Eric Williams of the Omaha Biofuels Coop loads a barrel of used frying oil from Mary Our Queen Catholic church into the back of a truck.

In Omaha, Neb., Eric Williams’ biodiesel hobby is about more than homemade fuel.

Williams and his brother Scott created the Omaha Biofuels Coop. Along with the 12 co-op members, they recycle about 6,000 gallons of oil each year. Some is used in members’ cars. Some even powers the sightseeing train at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

Co-op members think of it as super-charged recycling.

“We’ve got a big problem with CO2 and other pollutants in the air,” Williams said. “And so whatever we can do to reclaim this resource and put it to its highest possible use, that’s why the co-op was started and what we’ll continue to do.”

The co-op collects from 25 restaurants around the city, but also gathers about 1,000 gallons of fry oil from churches’ seasonal Lenten fish fries.

Eric Williams says many big chain restaurants recycle their oil with commercial collection companies, but small restaurants and churches may send it to the landfill, which he says isn’t a good place for it.

“One: you’re paying for the weight of the trash that’s being disposed of,” Williams said. “And two: you really shouldn’t be doing that because it can be a bio-contaminant in the trash.”

Biodiesel is a way to turn that trash into fuel.

And by the time the fish fries of Lent come around again next year, it will be time to refill.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.