VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) – Its first nickname was “R2D2” after the “Star Wars” robot, but now they just call it “the dog” when it’s time to drain the grease at Burgerville USA.

“The dog” is a small, stainless steel tank and pump combination on wheels that the Northwest restaurant chain has pioneered to channel used cooking oil to a biodiesel producer.

“It’s the wave of the future,” said Chris Wurtz, a Burgerville manager who demonstrated “the dog” at a new restaurant at the junction of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in Vancouver.

With the price of crude oil soaring, the restaurant industry – already the nation’s largest single employer – could make a serious contribution to the fuel supply if most of its waste cooking oil can be recycled as biodiesel, according to industry and renewable fuel experts.

“It really does hold long-term benefits, not only for the restaurant industry, but for the environment on a national basis,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.

At the Burgerville restaurant, Wurtz towed “the dog” to the deep fryer, opened a steel cabinet door, turned a valve and started the oil flowing into the low-slung tank. When he had a big sample, he towed the pump to the back of the restaurant to transfer the old oil into a tall, stainless steel holding tank.

The big tank is fitted with a hose coupling that feeds through the back wall, where a truck from MRP Services, a family-owned plumbing and drain service company, can drive up, connect another hose, and drain the tank.

MRP, in turn, takes the oil to SeQuential Biofuels in neighboring Portland, where it is converted to biodiesel.

The arrangement saves Burgerville the cost of hauling away the grease, but it is expected to eventually bring in additional revenue as biodiesel producers develop a competitive market.

“It’s a win-win situation for both the restaurant operator, who now has another viable option for the disposal of old oil, as well as the general public, who benefit from energy conservation and energy source options,” Riehle said.

Used vegetable oil has been either waste or the stuff that restaurants had to pay to haul off to a rendering company that could transform it into raw material for pet food, soaps or cosmetics.

Rising fuel prices, however, are pushing a switch to converting the used cooking oil into renewable biodiesel fuel as a routine part of the restaurant business.

“For us it’s a straightforward proposition,” said Jeff Harvey, chief operating officer of The Holland Inc., parent company of the chain of 39 Burgerville restaurants.

“Waste oil is the largest byproduct of our business, and we use that byproduct to make something of value and contribute back to local communities,” Harvey said.

Burgerville restaurants now produce about 7,500 gallons of oil a month that can be turned into 6,400 gallons of biodiesel, company officials said.

The conversion reduces the need for relying on distant refineries and avoids much of the cost of transport because biodiesel can be produced locally, as other potential biodiesel users and producers have discovered – including Salem-based Kettle Foods Inc., which makes potato chips.

“We power three company vehicles, Volkswagen Beetles, with diesel engines we call ‘biobeetles’ – our own little fleet,” said Jim Green, Kettle Foods spokesman.

“We’ve gotten real good in reusing our oil and not having as much waste, but all of our waste does go to be processed into biodiesel,” Green said.

Carlo Luri, biofuels manager for Bently Agrowdynamics in Minden, Nev., said that each American uses about 10 gallons of cooking oil a year. He said recapturing just half that amount of oil could trim conventional diesel fuel consumption by 1 percent to 2 percent nationally, along with cutting down on pollution. Diesel fuel accounts for about 24 percent of oil refinery production nationally, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Luri said there also is an economic incentive to recycle old cooking oil because it generally is cheaper than “virgin” vegetable oil produced directly from crops such as soybeans.

In California, the Orange County Sanitation District is taking the recycling process a step further by recovering grease from sewer systems and traps.

But the district would like to develop a system that keeps the grease out of the sewer system altogether.

“We look at it like renewable fuel, if we can get it out of the sewer and get it into the market,” said Nick Arhontes, the engineer who directs regional services for the Southern California agency that already uses biodiesel in its trucks.

“It goes beyond restaurants to school cafeterias, jail cafeterias, hospitals – to get them to have their fats, oils and greases collected and get them into some alternative use,” Arhontes said.

Kelly King, vice president of Pacific Biodiesel Inc. in Hawaii, said the company founded 10 years ago by her husband, Robert King, now converts most of the waste cooking oil collected around the island state.

The couple began on the island of Maui, where Robert King had the contract to maintain generators at the central landfill. He teamed up with University of Idaho researcher Daryl Reece to recycle discarded cooking oil into biodiesel in order to reduce the impact on the environment.

Kelly King noted that Hawaii has already reached the goal of providing 2 percent of the total diesel consumption that Luri said could be reached nationally. Now the challenge is to find more renewable fuel sources.

“We’re already there with used cooking oil,” King said. “We need to come up with another oil seed crop to seriously displace diesel fuel.”

Processing used cooking oil into fuel offers a grassroots alternative to produce biodiesel at the neighborhood and even household level, using readily available equipment such as an old water heater, said Lyle Rudensey, co-founder of The Breathable Bus Coalition and a member of the NW Biodiesel Network.

Rudensey, also known as “BioLyle,” holds biodiesel workshops in the Seattle area.

“Bring your own water heater, and we’ll show you the plumbing and how it works,” he said.

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