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He’s betting his bum on biodiesel

New Zealander plans a circumnavigation in a boat powered by vegetable oils and, perhaps, human fat

New Zealander plans a circumnavigation in a boat powered by vegetable oils and, perhaps, human fat

Pete Bethune’s life passion at the moment is to race around the world in a record 65 days in a boat fueled by processed vegetable oils.

“I eat, sleep and drink this project,” says the New Zealander. He has mortgaged his house to help finance it and has undergone liposuction to hype it. “There are many different sources of biodiesel, including your bum.” Soy oil. Coconut oil. Palm oil. Mustard seed oil. Animal fat. Even human fat. They all can be processed into fuel.

A skinny guy, Bethune, as it turns out, wasn’t a very bountiful source of biodiesel. The surgeon only could extract 100 milliliters of fat from his buttocks. However, the doc promised more from other patients. After processing, Bethune hoped to have 10 liters, or about 3 gallons, of human fat to power his boat, Earthrace, about six miles.

Stirred by a taste for adventure and a sense of personal responsibility, Bethune plans to make the 24,000-mile circumnavigation in a futuristic 78-foot wave-piercing tri-hull and promote biodiesel fuel — one of his sponsors is the National Biodiesel Board — as a renewable energy source along the way. Target date for the start of his round-the-world challenge is March 2007.

Earthrace toured New Zealand in June and crossed the Pacific on its bottom in July for a 36-city North American tour, starting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Bethune planned to visit ports along the U.S. West Coast in August, transit the Panama Canal and stop in ports on the East Coast and Canada in September and October. He plans to visit cities on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River down to New Orleans in November, and stop in Houston; Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.;and Wilmington, N.C., in December and January. He says he’ll wind up his tour at the Miami International Boat Show in February and begin his record attempt in March.

Bethune’s boat is powered by a pair of 540-hp Cummins MerCruiser diesels that run on 100 percent biodiesel. It looks like a spacecraft, with its sharp entry, delta shape and wings that rise high over the deck to serve as engine air intakes. The wings remain out of the water while the boat is plowing through seas. A tough, nearly inch-thick laminated windshield must withstand tons of water as the boat pierces waves.

Builder Calibre Boats of Auckland, New Zealand, launched the $2 million wave-piercer Feb. 24 in Auckland. Bethune wants to skipper Earthrace around the world from San Diego in a westward record attempt, but he still was looking for a major sponsor to kick in $3 million.

“To date, Earthrace has been made possible through contributions from literally hundreds of companies and individuals who believe in our vision,” he says. “We now need a global brand looking to align themselves with the messages of performance, adventure, integrity and the environment.”

At one time an oil-field engineer, Bethune insists he’s no tree-hugging environmentalist, but he says he has seen the writing on the wall. “We are going to run out of oil in 40 to 45 years,” he says. “We’re going to run out of gas in 60 years and coal in 200 years.

Bethune will be stumping on behalf of alternative fuels during the race and in a world tour afterward. He says his fuel will come from multiple sources. In the United States, most biodiesel comes from soybean oil. In Europe, it is processed canola oil. In the tropics, palm oil. In Singapore, he’ll run on a derivative of various cooking oils. In Panama and Acapulco, he’ll fuel up with biodiesel made from mustard seed and donated by singer Willie Nelson, who owns a processing plant in Texas. Bethune says the alternative fuel delivers anywhere between 3 percent more and 4 percent less power than petroleum diesel. It is non-toxic, biodegradable, renewable and produces much lower emissions than regular diesel fuel, he says.

The tri-hull’s ultra-sharp, low-buoyancy bow pierces waves instead of riding over them so that the boat can maintain speed in most sea conditions. “Instead of riding over a wave, it barrels right through it,” he says. “That allows it to go a lot faster in rough water.”

Designed by Auckland naval architect Craig Loomes, Earthrace is built of strong, lightweight carbon fiber and Kevlar composites to keep the 78-footer’s displacement at a svelte 10 tons. Even the drive shafts and propellers are carbon, and the props are variable pitch for optimum fuel efficiency, Bethune says. Earthrace is designed to carry 2,500 gallons of fuel over a 3,000-mile range — critical for getting around the world without running out of biodiesel.

Bethune will try to break the 75-day powerboat record set in 1998 by the British Cable & Wireless Adventure, a 115-foot wave-piercer. His boat’s top speed is about 52 mph. He plans to take a southern route, sticking as close to the equator as possible and transiting the Suez and Panama canals. He will make four-hour refueling stops at 12 ports.

A mechanical engineer who has worked in oil fields in the Middle East and North Sea, Bethune was working on his MBA at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, when his interest in wave-piercers and alternative fuels converged. In fact, he did a research project on the fuels.

Bethune says if he had to pay for all the construction materials and components, Earthrace would have cost $2 million to build. With in-kind contributions, construction costs were much less. He and his wife loaned the venture $600,000. The $3 million corporate contribution he hopes to get would pay back his loan and underwrite the circumnavigation, tour and a documentary film. “We’ve put our life savings into this,” he says.

Tom Verry, development director for the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo., says biodiesel can be made from any vegetable or animal oil. Californians are producing it from grease recycled from restaurants. Still in limited commercial use, biodiesel — which smells like popcorn when it burns — more typically is a mixture of 80 percent petroleum diesel and 20 percent pure biodiesel.

Bethune says he is confident he can break the record. His biggest concern is a surprise encounter with debris at high speed. “If we hit anything, we’re probably history,” he says.

For more information, visit the Earthrace Web site at .