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Biodiesel from human fat: illegal (not to mention unappetizing) but technically feasible

Biodiesel made from plant stock or animal fat (or a combination of the two) will likely get a lot of attention in the coming year as a potential fuel alternative to the petroleum, gasoline and kerosene polluting the environment. But don't expect human cellulite to make the cut when it comes to renewable fuel, despite claims by one Beverly Hills, Calif., doc that he powered his Ford SUV and his girlfriend's Lincoln Navigator using fat that he liposuctioned from patients.

Craig Alan Bittner, 40, medical director of the now-defunct Beverly Hills Liposculpture and a board-certified radiologist, didn't stick around to make his case for the use of flabby fuel. Rather, he fled to South America to avoid prosecution for several alleged crimes (in addition to the unsubstantiated claim of using human fat to make biodiesel), including allegedly allowing his assistant and his girlfriend to perform surgeries without a medical license, Forbes.com reports.

The California State Medical Board last month searched Bittner's Rodeo Drive office and his home, confiscating medical records, computers and other documents regarding his "liposculpting" practice, the Beverly Hills Courier reported earlier this month.

In a letter to patients posted on his Web site, Bittner  says he left his plastic surgery practice to return to South America "to volunteer with a small clinic that is very similar to where my medical career began decades ago, where I can help those most in need."

Kevin Pho, a Nashua, N.H., primary care physician board-certified in internal medicine, noted last week on his KevinMD.com Web site that, though possible to make biofuel from human fat, it is illegal to do so. It's possible that Bittner didn't realize he was breaking the law, given that he posted regular updates on his fat feat on his blog, lipodiesel.com, which is no longer functioning. He portrayed his liposuction business as a success, claiming to have treated nearly 7,000 patients. There are also customer testimonials on Bittner's site, where he posted photos in which he's pictured with patients holding up bags purportedly containing the globs of fat suctioned from various parts of their bodies.

Bittner's legal troubles (he was also sued in 2003 for "false and deceptive advertising" of a test marketed as an alternative to mammography for the detection of breast cancer) aside, his quest for a feasible form of renewable fuel is shared by scientists worldwide. Mind you, most of them are researching much more promising (and legal) biofuel ingredients such as algae, jatropa (a woody shrub from Africa that produces oily seeds) and beef and chicken lard.

It's been known for some time that animal fat is, technically, a good source for biofuels. In a 1996 report to the National Biodiesel Board (a biodiesel trade association established in 1992), University of Idaho researcher Jon Van Gerpen (at the time with Iowa State University) concluded that biodiesel fuels produced from vegetable oils and animal fats are very similar, containing the same chemical compounds but in different amounts. "There does not appear to be any basis for making a distinction between the two fuels in terms of their impact on engine performance and emissions," he wrote.

More recently, Tyson Foods and biofuel company Syntroleum Corporation formed a joint venture called Dynamic Fuels and in October broke ground on a $138 million renewable fuels plant in Geismar, La. Dynamic Fuels will primarily use Tyson Foods's beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases to make a renewable synthetic diesel fuel that can be sold in the U.S. within the existing diesel fuel distribution system. The Dynamic Fuels plant is scheduled to begin production in 2010, with a total capacity of 75 million gallons per year.

Even with his apparently large clientele, it's unlikely Bittner could have competed with that type of volume.

Update (10:45 p.m.): 60-Second Science reader Quinn Heraty notes that this post reminded her of "Vivoleum," a fake campaign by the Yes Men, a group that impersonates the powerful to satirize them. Their Vivoleum is an oil product made from human flesh -- in this case people who are already dead. (Heraty does some pro bono work for the Yes Men, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)

Image © iStockphoto.com; Jim DeLillo

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