In fish fry season, oil finds another use as homemade fuel

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. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
Diners go through the serving line at the North American Martyrs Friday fish fry in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
Leroy Forbes of Lincoln, Nebraska collects around 500 gallons of used fry oil during Lent to be used to make biodiesel. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
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March 17, 2016 - 6:45am

During the season of Lent, many Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. But fish is considered fair game, so the Friday night fish fry has become an annual tradition. All of that frying uses up vegetable oil that can just go to waste, but there are some people putting it to good use.

Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter you’ll find hundreds of hungry parishioners lining up at church fish fries around the Midwest.  


Gregg Hellbusch (left) drops a load of fish into the fryer. The church will go through more than 200 pounds of frozen fish fillets in one night. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

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

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.

Leroy Forbes collects used vegetable oil from four fish fries in Lincoln, Nebraska. He uses the oil to make his own biodiesel during the summer months. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Forbes pumps hot fry oil out of a barrel behind the North American Martyrs church into a barrel in the back of his truck. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

“(I) suck it up form 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 from 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.”

In Omaha, 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.

Williams holds up a bottle of vegetable oil that has been separated into a light-colored layer of diesel fuel and a dark-colored layer of glycerin, a byproduct of making diesel from vegetable oil. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

“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 is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.



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