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Sold on biodiesel

Clutching a jar of what looks like a mixture of pond sludge and pork lard, students in South Medford High School's Biodiesel Club head to the auto shop at lunch hour to fuel their hunk-of-junk pickup.

The club's sponsor, world studies teacher Dave Lefkowitz starts the silver Isuzu's diesel engine. As the motor sputters and coughs, the aroma of French fries fills the air.

"Biodiesel: It's what was for dinner," quips freshman Cailin Notch.

Salvaging used vegetable oil from the school cafeteria, concocting biodiesel has become a regular production at the school since the club debuted in October.

Lefkowitz, a philosophical former attorney, offered the club after students eagerly gobbled up his lessons on global energy consumption.

"They showed concern about the amount of resources we are consuming compared to other countries," he said. "We use one-fourth of the world's oil, mostly toward transportation. India and China have half of the people in the world. If they develop the same auto-based society as the United States, oil consumption wouldn't be feasible."

The students joined the club to promote the production and use of biodiesel to help curb air pollution and global warming caused by gas-fueled vehicle emissions and to conserve the world's oil supply.

"Biodiesel is so important because oil is not only made into gas to run cars, it's also used to make plastic products," said club vice president senior Gordon Casey. "Oil is being used to make things like oxygen masks to save people's lives, and we're wasting it by burning it for fuel."

Inspired by the students' altruism, the South Medford High Booster Club provided $3,000 in seed money to the biodiesel club to purchase a processor and the battered pickup.

The club meets during the week and on weekends to produce biodiesel with their processor, located in a barn in Jacksonville.

It's possible to make biodiesel without a processor. The process involves heating vegetable oil and adding a mixture of lye and methanol.

A glycerin byproduct of biodiesel can be used to make soap.

"I think people should know about this," said freshman Ryken Robbins. "The biodiesel we're making here could be a great start for all of Medford."

In the coming months, the club will hear from a retired naval officer who will show them how to convert a diesel engine to accept pure vegetable oil. Other activities could include a visit to a Seattle biodiesel refinery.

The practice of using vegetable oil for fuel has been around at least since the invention of the diesel engine by Rudolf Diesel in the late 1890s. He designed the engine so it would not have to rely on finite resources, Lefkowitz said.

On Thursday, students began sanding the pickup's body in preparation for a new paint job. They hope to give it a striking appearance for use in future July Fourth and Pear Blossom parades to further promote biodiesel.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

South Medford High School student Ryken Robbins shows how biodiesel looks when it is separated from vegetable oil. Students have converted the old pickup at left to run on biodiesel. ROY MUSITELLI PHOTO/4-19-07 - Roy Musitelli