LANCASTER — In a time of $4-a-gallon diesel fuel, Christian Wyler has skills that could make oil executives shudder.
For the past four years, the Garrard County High School senior has been making bio diesel in his own back yard.
The fuel that Wyler makes now goes into the diesel engines of his father's Volkswagen Jetta, as well as much of the equipment on his grandfather's Lincoln County farm.
Strange coincidence, curiosity and the price at the pump led Wyler to start up his operation.
"I'm in FFA (Future Farmers of America), and we are required to do a project," he said. "I was looking around for something to do."
The money that his father, Paul, was pouring into his gas tank on the job also was a motivating factor. His dad might drive hundreds of miles in a week during his work as a property assessor.
In a moment of synchronicity, both of them were watching the same show on the Horsepower television network in different places. When his dad called, each knew what the other was thinking: Let's make some fuel.
Wyler immersed himself in Internet tutorials and books on the subject. Later that year, they were up and running.
The total startup cost was about $1,000. Using items including a water heater, plastic barrels and a milk-receiving jar, Wyler set up in a small outbuilding behind his parents' house.
He has more than paid off his investment.
"The price of making our biodiesel is about 70 cents a gallon," he said. "That is obviously a bargain compared to over $4 a gallon."
Wyler, who makes the fuel only for his family's use, has seen his increasing level of expertise steadily improve his productivity.
"There is a lot of science involved with determining how much biodiesel you can get from the amount of oil you have," he said. "You have to tweak the amount of catalyst you use for each batch. I can get eight or 81/2 gallons of fuel from 10 gallons of oil now."
Unfortunately, just when he was perfecting the technique, his main source of used cooking oil dried up.
"We started out getting smaller amounts from fish fries and other places, but we found a steady supplier in Woody's," a Danville restaurant, he said. "Since they went out of business, it has been very difficult to find oil in the quantities we need."
Those hoping that Wyler's example signals a democratization of energy production will probably be disappointed. He thinks it's hard for individual biodiesel producers to even get started.
"Companies have much greater capabilities than we do," he said. "They are contracting with restaurants in some cases. They pay as much as 2 cents a gallon, and sometimes businesses even pay them to take away their oil.
Wyler's penchant for making biodiesel has begun to get him some notice.
Earlier this year, Wyler attended a conference on biomass and biofuels at the University of Kentucky. His age has made him a bit of an anomaly among those who study biofuels and biomass.
"I'm not going to lie: I didn't understand everything they were talking about," he said. "But I was the only person there who didn't have a Ph.D."
Now some chemical engineers from UK want to come look at his operation.
Despite his successful run, Wyler's time as an oilman might soon end. He probably will give up making biodiesel when he heads off to college next fall.
He does not think his current hobby will lead to a future occupation either; he is considering becoming an optometrist.
Although he won't be around, Wyler wouldn't be surprised if his family continues to take advantage of the makeshift marvel he built.
"We have enough to make it through the winter," he said. "If diesel prices keep doing what they have been, I think my dad might still come out here sometimes."