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As gas prices soar, this Sonoma Valley High graduate is doubling down on biodiesel

Walking to his biofuel-powered 1981 Mercedes 300SD Turbo Diesel with two 20-gallon gas tanks, Joseph Silvi says the only downside of using alternative fuel is the smell of fried food that pokes his appetite.

“One time I drove to my friend’s house with it, and they said, ‘Was that someone cooking? ‘” Silvi, 19, said. “I’m like, ‘No, that’s my car.’ Guess it smells better than regular diesel fumes.

Now, Sonoma Valley High School’s class of 2021 valedictorian is a freshman at UC Berkeley, where he’s enjoying the low cost of biofuel while others are paying record prices at the pump. Although Silvi’s biofuel gets about the same miles per gallon as diesel, he said, it releases nearly 20% fewer emissions than diesel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

His idea arose after Silvis’ car battery died at First Baptist Church on East First Street, and another parishioner drove him and his sister home.

“It was a diesel Mercedes from the late 70s, so a bit older than mine,” Silvi said. “And that kind of just kind of spurred an interest in these cars. So I started watching a ton of YouTube videos and that led to all these other videos about people running them on alternative fuels.

On a crisp Monday morning in Boyes Hot Springs, Silvi’s Mercedes is parked in the driveway next to another project, a vegetable garden, surrounded by a string of lights. Silvi wears a shirt the same color as a wheatgrass shot, dotted with a bright pink polo player. He carefully straddles a rocky path to the side of the house where he turns frying oil into fuel.

Do-it-yourself diesel

Dulce Silvi, Joseph’s mother, said her son has long been fascinated by green energy. She remembers him reading about agricultural vehicles that used biofuels like cooking oil and watching documentaries about cars running on alternative fuels in Scandinavia.

“He was a junior when he found this car, and he was really looking for something that ran on diesel,” Dulce Silvi said. “He found this (car) and started making his own biodiesel. I believe it was last year that he finally succeeded with a batch of biodiesel he was able to put in his car.

Creating biodiesel was a trial and error process, Silvi said, adding that cooking oil alone could run his car, but it could create unwanted dirt in the engine.

“I started in November (2021), but I didn’t really understand the chemistry well,” Silvi said. “The first two batches did not go well. The first, especially. It just turned into a big eight gallon soap tub.

Yes, soap.

If cooking oil contains too much water, Silivi said, the chemical reaction with sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide creates industrial soap. But once the oil is isolated and the chemical mixture is added, the result is a fatty acid compound molecularly similar to diesel.

“And it works pretty well,” Silvi said. “I have a lot of plans to fix other things over the summer, so it’s just an ever-evolving project.”

Silvi said he had to thank local restaurants who donated their used cooking oil to him, including OSO, Picazo Kitchen and Bar, Murphy Irish Pub, Amy’s Peking Palace and Red Grape.

Usually these restaurants would use an oil removal service like North Bay Restaurant Services to properly dispose and recycle their cooking oil, but the restaurants were happy to turn over unwanted waste to Silvi.

Biofuel and beyond

As gasoline and diesel prices have risen above $6 a gallon at many gas stations in recent weeks, Silvi told her family, “Just take my car. It costs nothing. »

He was grateful for cheap fuel during his weekend drive from Berkeley. But the heart of his projects has always been to help others, Dulce Silvi said, and that’s still part of his mission as an environmental engineering student.

“He’s always been so caring, he likes to help. And it’s one of his passions. He loves helping and loves finding solutions,” said Dulce Silvi. “And we’re so grateful he’s on this planet.”

The planet might also be grateful for his son, who said he always enjoyed nature and was inspired by the surroundings of Sonoma Valley’s acres of vineyards and hot springs.

“The rate at which we are going with our use of resources is not sustainable,” Silvi said. “Even for people who don’t really care about the environment, fossil fuels are only a finite resource. So we have to find alternatives, whether you care about the land or not. And so I think pioneering people in the development of alternative energy sources is really important.

Silvi hopes to take her experience adapting her car to biodiesel and scale it through the Biofuelds Technology Club for all vehicles on the Berkeley campus. The university aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, and eliminating gas-powered vehicles goes a long way toward achieving that mission, he said.

“My car is currently the test vehicle, and then we’ll move on to other campus vehicles,” Silvi said. “Biofuels Technology Club needs to start coordinating with canteens…to collect their cooking oil.”