In the worldwide search for alternative energy sources, vegetable oil is becoming an increasingly popular substitute for crude oil. Diesel-engine fuel can be made easily from soybean, canola or other oils commonly found in the kitchen. But just a 90-minute drive from Washington, DC, one company is working to take canola from the field to the fryer to the fuel tank, and do it all locally. And company executives say it's a system that could work anywhere in the world. VOA's Steve Baragona has more.

Freshly-fried potato chips are a hot item at Cork Street Tavern in Winchester, Virginia. They come with the barbecued ribs and many of the other meals.

Kitchen manager Chris Bennett buys his fryer oil from Shenandoah Agricultural Products, a small company just a few kilometers away.

After the restaurant has fried all it can with the oil, Shenandoah has plans for it.
"They're going to turn it into biodiesel," noted Bennett.

Biodiesel is diesel fuel made from plants, not petroleum. Shenandoah runs its farm equipment with it. And Diane Kearns runs the company.

"Humans and everything that goes on are just part of a bigger picture," said Kearns. "And so, if we can do things sustainably, environmentally, that's really a huge help. Everything has to work economically, too."

Farming is on the decline in this area as the suburbs gradually encroach. Kearns says she wants to find a way to keep local agriculture in business while helping the environment. She thinks biofuel crops might help. But she says she is not in it for the money.

"The reason for doing this is not to make a million dollars," added Kearns. "The reason to do this is to empower local ag[riculture] and prove you can be sustainable with this kind of stuff."

Biodiesel is a growing worldwide industry. But Kearns and her partners are different. They do it all: Kearns grows canola. Her partner Josh Leidhecker makes it into the fryer oil they sell to local restaurants.

"It contains canola oil, hard work, and American pride," noted Leidhecker.

Then they take the used oil back and turn it into biodiesel fuel in a system Leidhecker designed and built himself.

"I am a backwoods engineer," Leidhecker explained. "That being said, I don't have any formal training in engineering. I've always just been intuitive in figuring things out."

He even figured out a way to put it all inside the back of a tractor-trailer.

"We wanted to design a system that was truly mobile, that we could take to the consumer and produce the fuel for them on site," Leidhecker added.

And since it is mobile, and the chemical process is simple, he says it could work anywhere in the world where farmers have an oilseed crop.

Kearns says the system is economical, too. Their biodiesel costs about the same to make as the regular diesel fuel they buy.

"With a little bit of profit margin in there, the cost is coming out pretty darn close," said Kearns. "Which I'm really psyched about."

They can even sell their vegetable oil for less than their competitors. Which means Chris Bennett is pretty excited, too.

"I think it's a great idea, especially with gas costing more than milk now," said Bennett. "It's going to save us money, save them money, and help the environment as well."

All that, and help local farmers, too.