Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Around the world on biodiesel

SMORGASBORD A Kiwi has built a powerboat that can run on fuel extracted from french-fry grease and the drippings of deep fryers


The captain and crew of the biodiesel speedboat Earthrace welcome visitors aboard at a pier in Monterey, California last month. The crew hopes to raise awareness about the fuel by circumnavigating the globe.


In early July, Pete Bethune, an amateur sailor from New Zealand and a recent convert to environmentalism, stepped aboard his new US$2.4 million speedboat, filled up the tank with a fuel made from animal fat and headed east from Auckland.

His goal was simple: to complete the fastest circumnavigation of the globe in a motorboat while using nothing but biodiesel, which can be salvaged from french fry grease, refined soybean oil and other organic and recycled oils.

The record attempt is due to start in March, from Barbados, after a North American tour this fall meant to test and publicize the boat -- called the Earthrace -- and raise money.

"I thought I'd have a sponsor give me US$4 million and bankroll the whole thing," Bethune, 41, said. "And I still believe that."

But somewhere between Hawaii (where the boat refueled on biodiesel made from the drippings of cruise liners' deep fryers) and Vancouver (where it loaded up with fuel made from tallow, drawn from the hard fat of sheep and cattle), the Earthrace almost ran out of gas -- at least financially.

For the last month, Bethune, a former oil exploration engineer, has been bobbing up and down the California coast, asking for contributions ranging from US$5 to tour the boat to US$50,000 to plaster a corporate logo on the side.

"My wife sent an e-mail saying they're going to turn the lights out" at home, said Bethune, who has two children. "When you're stressing your partner out like this, it's hard."

The project has only about US$10,000 remaining in the bank and is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Bethune says he has put US$650,000 of his own cash into the Earthrace and spent another US$650,000 that was borrowed from banks, friends and family.

He sold a business he founded, sold his part in a plantation and mortgaged his home -- three times.

"I thought it would just fall into place," he said. "But we're just keeping our heads above water."

John Allen, the project's one-man ground crew, has also been trying to find money.

"There's lots of irons in the fire but no one with a checkbook and pen poised," said Allen, who is also a New Zealander. "But with a negligible budget, it's been difficult to go full bore with this."

Hotel rooms and fuel have been donated along the way, but things like rental cars have been a luxury.

"I've been wearing the same shorts for three months," Allen said. "It might be nice to get a new pair."

While the lack of money has done little to dampen Bethune's ambitions, he says he understands why nautical sponsors can be hard to find: "The sight of a boat sinking with someone's name on the side can be disconcerting."

Bethune said he first became interested in biodiesel several years ago while writing a paper on renewable fuels while studying for a master's degree in Australia.

He gained a passing knowledge of biodiesel while working on oil rigs in the North Sea and near Libya, but as he learned more, he said, he "became a real convert."

Around the same time, Bethune also happened across a little-known fact: The world record for circumnavigation of the globe by a powerboat is 75 days, set in 1998 by a British boat called the Cable & Wireless Adventurer. Bethune figured he could do it faster and, at the same time, raise awareness for his newfound cause.

His passion won over some early sponsors, including Cummins MerCruiser Diesel, which donated the engines; ZF Marine, which donated the boat's gearboxes, propellers and engine controls; and Biodiesel Oils NZ, which gave Earthrace 56,780 liters of fuel (about five tanks' worth) and US$30,000 for expenses. Panasonic donated US$150,000 worth of video equipment, and Caliber Boats built the boat at cost, fusing it together using Kevlar and carbon.

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