Manitoba filmmakers delve into alternative fuels

If you have a pile of mouldering Tim Hortons cups in your car, you might have a fuel source at your fingertips: some work required.

It’s one of the alternative fuel sources explored in the Manitoba-made documentary, “Drive For Free: The Alternative Fuel Revolution.”

“We like to do stories that kind of question the status quo and force people to think about things in a different way,” said Noah Erenberg, who made the film with longtime collaborator Bruce Little. “We hope that it might inspire people to do things differently.”

The hour-long film, shot in Winnipeg and the Interlake, investigates emerging sources of biodiesel including the possibility that garbage — like old coffee cups — can be turned into fuel using bacteria.

Richard Sparling of the University of Manitoba’s microbiology department, and David Levin with the university’s biosystems engineering department are leading a $10.4-million study on turning waste into ethanol. Both researchers are featured in the documentary.

“The ethanol we are producing from waste paper and residual agricultural residue is the same kind of fuel that is produced today by companies like Husky,” said Levin.

Only this process doesn’t divert food into the fuel market, he said.

The next stage of their research will take the findings out of the lab and look at producing large quantities of cellulosic ethanol. But even if it is possible to produce thousands of litres at a time, business expertise and investments will still be needed to make it a success.

The research has been funded to date by a partnership between the University of Manitoba, Genome Canada, Genome Prairie, the Province of Manitoba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mines and numerous other interested parties.

“The question is not whether or not we can do it, the question is whether it will be economically competitive with other technology,” Levin said. “It’s not really taken off the way people have hoped because the process is still more expensive than using grain, and it’s still more expensive than the price of gasoline.”

The researcher expects that as long as oil remains below $150 a barrel, these alternative technologies will remain economically non-viable.

But that hasn’t stopped some people from using used canola oil to make their own biodiesel.

Little and Erenberg’s film features Bifrost Bio-Blends in Arborg, a co-op producing biodiesel, along with an area man who makes biodiesel in his garage.

But in the end, the filmmakers choose to go the route of used vegetable oil, allowing them to convert vehicles using commercially available kits. Local restaurants provide the used vegetable oil, although competition for the french fry-flavoured fuel — which must be filtered before use — can be tough.

“Both Noah and I are now running waste vegetable oil in our vehicles, and we’re saving a lot doing it,” said Little.

Erenberg noted the diesel engine was originally designed to run on peanut oil, not fossil fuels.

“Petroleum, in fact is something that doesn’t come naturally to vehicles,” he said, adding oil companies were instrumental in promoting the use of petroleum in the combustion engine.

However, the hour-long documentary doesn’t focus on the political underpinnings of the fossil fuel economy so much as provide a do-it-yourself guide to making and using alternative fuels.

“Most people when they hear about us running our cars on waste vegetable oil are just blown away,” said Little. “People have no idea this is even possible, so when they see it happen they are like, this is really cool. Hopefully it gets them thinking differently about driving, too.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



Stories from our other publications