On the West Coast, the theft of used cooking oil is on the rise. The New York Times reports that a bandit was caught in Northern California with 2,500 gallons of used fryer grease stashed in his truck. “Fryer grease has become gold,” restaurant owner Nick Damianidis told the Times. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.” But the used oil that was once seen as a waste product isn’t getting treated like trash anymore. In fact, it’s priced at almost $2.50 a gallon:

The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

Biodiesel is derived by processing vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol. It is increasingly available around the country, but it is expensive. With the right kind of conversion kit (easily found on the Internet) anyone can turn discarded cooking oil into a usable engine fuel that can burn on its own, or as a cheap additive to regular diesel.

Just a few years ago, any hippie with a biodiesel conversion kit could get as much used cooking grease as he wanted simply by asking his local joints nicely. And in 2006, CNNMoney.com said, “Gas is expensive. Old vegetable cooking oil from restaurants is free.” The article went on to quote a very valid prediction from Patrick Kuhn of Charlotte Moving Truck Rentals, who started converting his trucks to biodiesel that year: “With $3 diesel, I don’t think it will take long before someone realizes ‘hey, there’s money to be made in this.’”

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