October 10, 2002

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Eric Lang’s energy source—

Would you like fries with that?

Eric Lang
Eric Lang

In the film Back to the Future, the nutty professor appeared ludicrous, fueling his time machine automobile with beer and banana peels. But don’t underestimate the power of suggestion. Recycled french fry grease now powers at least one car here in Yellow Springs.

Bio-diesel, the renewable diesel fuel made from vegetable oils, is difficult to find at commercial gas stations. That is why local engineer Eric Lang keeps an elevated white fuel drum in the front yard of his Talus Drive residence, filled to the brim with enough bio-diesel to last him about four months.

“The stuff’s so clean you could probably eat it, though it wouldn’t taste very good,” Lang said.

Supporting renewable energy sources that do not pollute the environment has long been a passion for Lang. He remembers going through the first oil crisis as a kid in Oregon, where gasoline was rationed by even and odd numbered license plates. Drivers were so eager to be eligible for gas that license plate theft became commonplace.

“It was only a temporary problem, but even then it was out of control,” he said. “That’s when I first realized that we needed to find an alternative to fossil fuels or we’d end up killing each other for the last drop of oil.”

The fuel that Lang uses comes from Griffin Industries in Cincinnati. The company gathers used biodegradable oil from restaurants, mostly soybean oil, and converts it to diesel fuel. The diesel comes in varying shades of mustard yellow, depending on how dirty the recycled oil was when they received it.

At $2.20 a gallon, including home delivery, the environmentally responsible fuel source has many benefits. Burning natural oil releases hydrocarbons previously trapped in the earth, a process thought to be largely responsible for the increased threat of global warming. By using soybean oil for fuel, the gases that are released are the same ones that have been taken out of the environment to grow the soybeans. No new carbon dioxide has been added to the system, according to Lang.

“It’s a cycle versus a one-way street,” he said. “Bio-diesel reduces almost all air exhaust pollution relative to regular diesel.”

Bio-diesel can be made from soybeans and algae, both of which, unlike fossil fuels and crude oil, provide a renewable source of energy. Bio-diesel gets as many if not more gallons per mile as regular diesel, said Lang. And it has greater lubricating properties, therefore, it is better for the car’s engine. Most modern European and American cars, buses, and farm equipment will have no trouble handling bio-diesel, he said.

Lang hopes to generate interest in bio-diesel for the fleet of local school buses and fire engines that fill up at the Yellow Springs diesel depot at the high school. The local station could use a blend called B20, made of 20 percent bio-diesel and 80 percent petrol. Bio-diesel is nontoxic, biodegradable, and safer than regular fuel because it is nonflammable.

“It would be educational for the kids, and it would be a significant step toward using an alternative fuel source for all vehicles,” Lang said.

Lang sees himself not as an active environmentalist but more as a person who supports sustainability. He is less interested in trying to limit people’s actions and more in to looking for workable compromises that allow humans to coexist with the environment.

However, the relative inactivity of the tired brown 1983 Mercedes sitting in his driveway testifies that he does do his part in trying to reduce waste and pollution.

“It had nearly 180,000 miles on it when I bought the car, and I figure I’ve got a couple more decades on it,” Lang said. “As much as I drive, I like to tell people, the car will last longer than fossil fuels,” he said with a laugh.

His commitment to ecological, economical, and socially equitable ideals gave Lang the name of his consulting company, E3 Designs. He is currently leading a group with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to license a large utility wind turbine design that would lower the cost of wind energy in cents per kilowatt hour.

Lang is also starting to showcase a new design for fiberglass manufacturing that would cut down on styrene emissions, one of the globe’s top ten polluters. These projects have been in the works for about seven years, and they are only now being recognized.

“I’m so used to having to try and convince buyers of the economic and utility benefits of my designs,” Lang said. “It’s pretty satisfying to finally have companies shopping around and coming to me with interest.”

Patience and diligence are just beginning to reap their rewards. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

“There are other projects I’m interested in, but it’s harvest time right now,” he said. “It’ll take another ten years to see these projects through and implement them to really make a difference.”

Everyone can make an effort toward creating a sustainable world and Lang believes that bio-diesel is a very reasonable way for local citizens to contribute.

“People ask me, ‘What’s the problem with this?’ And I say absolutely nothing, you should just do it!”


—Lauren Heaton