PALM HARBOR — When the price of diesel fuel for his 1981 Mercedes-Benz threatened to break his budget, 17-year-old Evan Lutvak didn't stop driving. He just set up a lab in the Lutvak family's garage near downtown Palm Harbor and began manufacturing biodiesel fuel to fill his tank.
But if you expected a boy chemist in a white lab coat, you'd be wrong.
Instead, if you visited his lab, you'd find a gregarious, barefoot teen wearing giant yellow gloves and singing a cappella.
"Well, I do have a set of goggles,'' Evan joked.
The 2011 Palm Harbor High graduate remembers his theater and English classes fondly, but his math and science classes — eh, not so much.
"Actually, I did enjoy chemistry freshman year, and I do use some of the things my teacher taught me,'' he said.
Last September, Evan spent $650 to buy his Mercedes. Rather than dropping around $3.80 a gallon for diesel at his neighborhood gas station, he created a lab of sorts in the garage of his parents' home. Now he pours biodiesel he's made into the car, which he's nicknamed "Fry Daddy."
Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel that can be produced from plant oils, animal fats and, in Evan's case, used cooking oil. He learned to make the fuel while studying at the Island School in the Bahamas during his junior year.
Founded by conservationists, the Island School is committed to minimizing its ecological footprint. The school's campus incorporates wind and solar power. School vehicles run on biodiesel.
"The school made 400 gallons of biodiesel a day and collected the used oil for it from cruise ships that would come into port. It was so cool,'' said Evan.
He returned from the Island School wanting to incorporate the knowledge he had gained into his daily life. He was also ready to buy his dream car, the vintage Mercedes,
His dad made a deal with him. He'd pay for insurance if Evan bought the car and paid for gas.
"But I knew gas prices, so I immediately starting thinking of loopholes,'' he said. "I knew I could make my own fuel.''
After 10 months of trial and error, he's found success. Here's how he makes the fuel:
• Every Thursday, Evan picks up two buckets of used fryer oil from a local restaurant.
• He takes the oil home and walks past the kayaks and bikes in his garage. He sticks an electric heating wand into the oil and lets it warm to 120 degrees.
• He sets up a makeshift filter — a long cotton net purchased from an aquarium store — and pours the used cooking oil through, ridding it of leftover pieces of french fries, jalapeno poppers and chicken wings.
• He performs a titration test to determine the amount of lye needed to remove the fatty acids from the batch. The test is done by placing a sample of the oil, distilled water, rubbing alcohol and lye into a container. He monitors the test with pH measuring sticks.
• Once he has determined how much lye he needs, he sets up a 15-gallon rain barrel and fills it with a mixture of the clean oil, the right amount of lye, and methanol gas purchased from a Tampa race car supply store.
• For 10 minutes, he blends the ingredients using a skinny electric paint mixer he picked up at Home Depot.
"And eight hours later, I come out and check on it," Evan said. "I get rid of the buildup of goop, the glycerin that forms on the bottom, and I'm done.''
Evan has been driving Fry Daddy to his job as a teacher's assistant at Ruth Eckerd Hall all summer. "I use about a half-tank of gas weekly,'' he said.
He didn't have to make major modifications to the car's diesel engine. So far, his two big repairs have been replacing the radiator for $190 and putting in five new glow plugs for $40.
"It runs great. It could go way over 80, but I usually go no faster than 50 or 60 miles per hour,'' he said.
In three weeks, he'll have to leave Fry Daddy behind as he heads off to Elon University in Burlington, N.C. It was the school's sustainable living philosophy that hooked him.
His parents, Larry, 56, and Cindi Clapp-Lutvak, 53, are proud of their son and not a bit surprised at his pursuits.
"We were big on self-reliance and teaching our children if they want something, make it happen,'' Larry Lutvak said.
They also were big on trying new things. When Evan was 4 and his sister, Sura, 6, Larry and Cindi decided to quit their jobs in Massachusetts and take off by sailboat to Venezuela.
"We did it because it was important to give our kids life experiences,'' Larry said. In 2005, the family settled in Palm Harbor.
Pinellas County has no regulations forbidding people from making biofuel at home, said county spokeswoman Mary Burrell. Evan's parents aren't worried about what's going on in their garage.
"He takes precautions," Larry said, " and he is doing such good. Why would I want to stop him from this?''
Evan isn't certain what career path he'll choose — maybe an anthropologist, "or maybe not," he said — but he plans to keep using alternative fuels. He wishes others his age would, too.
"I think of Harry Potter and Dumbledore," he said. "I want to tell people my age that you have to make a choice, a choice between what is right and what is easy.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4163.