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Deep-fried Fuel

Friendly’s Has Sweet Success With New Biofuel-processing Program

There’s something cooking in a small lab in Chicopee, at the Friendly Ice Cream Corp.’s distribution headquarters.

But it’s not a recipe for a new sundae or Supermelt. Friendly’s has introduced something new from the fryolator — it’s creating biofuel from used vegetable oil to help power its fleet of trucks and heat its warehouses.

Barry Bechard, distribution services supervisor for Friendly Ice Cream Corp. and one of the driving forces behind this new initiative, said the process of learning how to convert used oil into usable biodiesel began about a year ago, when many companies, especially those with large transportation and delivery components like Friendly’s, began evaluating what they could do to offset rising fuel costs.

“It was probably a couple of years ago that people started talking about different fuels they could use,” said Bechard, “and we began hearing about the possibility of transferring our trucks over to biodiesel.”

He said that, with the help of institutions involved with biofuel production and use — including UConn, which works with companies of various sizes to educate and help them implement the necessary systems — Friendly Ice Cream began to get a handle on what needed to be done to start using biodeisel. Moreover, Bechard said, the company realized it was already primed for the biofuel production in its own right, particularly in one key area: an abundance of the raw material needed to get started.

“Access to the oil is what ties everything together for us,” Bechard explained. “If we didn’t have it, the program just wouldn’t be as beneficial. All of our restaurants use quite a few gallons of vegetable oil, and up until recently, it’s just been a waste byproduct that we were giving to rendering plants. But when we learned how biodiesel is made, we realized we could start making it on our own.”

Fries, Fribbles, and the

Fast Lane

Last year, Friendly’s made about 5,000 gallons of biodiesel by preparing used vegetable oil for mixture with standard diesel fuel. This year, the company hopes to produce about 35,000 gallons, thus offsetting fuel usage in the majority of its trucks making deliveries throughout the Northeast. The biofuel is also being used as a heating oil additive in the company’s Wilbraham headquarters.

Jim Dangleis, director of Northeast Distribution for Friendly Ice Cream, said the company, with its scores of restaurants and existing infrastructure that makes delivering oil for biofuel production easily implemented, was uniquely positioned to launch the program without creating an added draw on resources.

“The key here is that we’re using used oil,” he said. “There’s been a lot of buzz about biofuel lately, but a lot of outfits are using virgin oil, which takes resources away from other things and gives biofuel production a bit of a black eye.”

However, once the oil-reuse program was presented to Friendly’s restaurants, about 150 locations jumped on board, creating a partnership between the franchises and the parent corporation.

“It creates a company-wide incentive,” said Dangleis. “I’m glad we started looking at biodiesel when we did, because now diesel prices are through the roof and we have something in place to help. Reducing fuel costs, in the long run, puts less of a burden on the restaurants.”

The restaurants are welcoming the new program, he said, because, on their end, it amounts to an innovative recycling initiative that both employees and customers can get behind.

“The process turns a waste product into a useful product,” he said. “The trucks run cleaner and quieter, and the fuel burns cleaner and more efficiently. Everyone wants to get behind something that’s green — it’s good business, and it’s good PR.”

Room for Seconds

The Friendly’s biofuel initiative also signals the start of a new chapter in the company’s already-colorful history. Not unlike the first Friendly’s location, opened by Prestley and Curtis Blake in Springfield in 1935, the Friendly biodiesel processing center is a modest yet carefully planned endeavor.

“You can’t just buy these labs,” said Dangleis. “You need to actually create one, and put it together with pumps and vats and tubing. There’s a huge learning curve in setting this up and getting regulatory permission, but everybody’s behind this. We’ve received a lot of help on company, state, and federal levels.”

Bechard agreed, noting that he’s received the support of everyone from district managers to maintenance personnel. He’s part of the endeavor’s front line, sacrificing clean shirts for oil stains, and ice cream cones for measuring cups of goo.

“It’s not the cleanest job,” he said, “and I’m no expert, but there’s a lot to learn that is very interesting to learn.”

Bechard alternately calls the biofuel production at Friendly a “homegrown system” or his “backyard still.” Indeed, the facility encompasses a small garage, and was built from scratch using materials found at any local home-improvement store. But the neatly arranged tanks, heaters, and other implements represent a conversion lab that is always humming.

Employees at the distribution center had a tongue-in-cheek sign created for the garage that reads ‘Friendly Biodiesel World Headquarters,’ and while it may have started as a joke, that bright green sign is fast becoming a point of pride.

Despite its size, the lab produces between 800 and 1,000 gallons of biodiesel a week, blending purified oil with standard diesel fuel (the mixture includes between 5% and 10% cooking oil).

There’s only about 10 feet separating where the process begins and ends, but there’s plenty of new lingo to be learned along the way. Bechard explained that vegetable oil used in frying is delivered to restaurants for use in what are called ‘cubies.’ The biofuel program requires that the restaurants refill the cubies with used oil, and the packages are then sent back to the distribution facility for processing.

The used oil, French fry bits and all, goes into a large trough where it’s strained, and then transferred to a ‘feeder tank’ in 42-gallon batches. Standard water heaters, just like those seen in basements across the country, are used to heat the oil to about 110 degrees, at which point various tests are performed to ensure the oil is at the right pH level — about 7, said Bechard.

Then, the oil is transferred again into a separation tank, segregating the usable oil from unusable byproducts, and finally to a mixing tank, where air is pumped in continuously to remove excess moisture. From there, the oil is ‘splash-blended’ with diesel fuel and is ready for use in Friendly trucks.

Two simple mason jars tell the story of how used oil becomes fuel for a fleet of tractor-trailers. One holds a sample of cloudy fry oil before distillation, and a second holds the clear, honey-colored result. Bechard said that, despite hours of straining, testing, transferring, and bubbling, the fuel actually remains edible, though few people are lining up to test that theory.

“I think most people are just going to take our word for it on that one,”
he said with a laugh, noting, however, that other corporations have caught wind of the biofuel production at Friendly and have approached the company looking for guidance. “It’s a new focus for a lot of people, and they’re coming to ask us questions. It’s a neat situation.”

Biofuel for Breakfast?

That said, Dangleis noted that Friendly’s is approaching the level of biofuel production it would like to stay at for a while, and there are no immediate plans to further expand the program. The trucks can only handle about a 10% addition of oil before the benefits start to lessen, and while he’s happy to answer the questions of other businesses, he doesn’t see biofuel ending up on any proverbial Friendly’s menu any time soon.

“We’re still in the restaurant business,” he said, “but this has become a real team effort to make something happen that is great for our needs.”

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