Around the World on Biodiesel

A decade after Bryan Peterson's amazing Sunrider expedition, the story of the voyage continues to inspire thousands. Long after the trip, the biodiesel journey lives on.
By Tom Bryan | February 01, 2005
It is both ironic and fitting that a man who once circumnavigated the Earth in a little boat fueled with biodiesel now lives landlocked in the heart of Iowa. The one-time skipper battled a fierce storm off the southern tip of Africa, needled his way through reefs and shipwrecks in the Nanuku Passage between the Samoas and Fiji, explored the wonders of Madagascar and taught thousands around the world about renewable energy. Today, Bryan Peterson, captain of the amazing Sunrider expedition, lives smack dab in the middle of American soybean country.

Peterson, a soft-spoken 59-year-old retired publisher, goes quietly about his business in Fairfield, Iowa, these days. He often drops by McDonald's for his morning coffee, talking to farmers who probably have no idea he's the only person to have ever traveled around the Earth in an inflatable boat powered by a stock diesel stern drive fueled with biodiesel. Peterson enjoys his low-profile life in Iowa. "The trip took me to the most beautiful places in the world and through circumstances and environments that most people will never experience," He said. "But I like the Midwest. I enjoy the simplicity of it."

December marked the 10-year anniversary of the completion of the Sunrider expedition, a voyage many in the young biodiesel industry have never heard of, yet a trailblazing biodiesel story that's work remembering.

In 1994, Peterson completed a 35,000-mile, two-year trip around the world in a 24-foot soft-sided, Zodiac boat powered almost exclusively with B100. The expedition was funded by the United Soybean Board and 130 other government and corporate sponsors from 14 nations. It was the first documented example of B100 being used in a major marine application by an American. The voyage demonstrated the practical viability of the renewable fuel and generated a great deal of publicity around the world. Throughout the trip, Peterson made presentations in 25 countries, introducing biodiesel to thousands of people. In the decade that has followed, he has exhibited Sunrider at more than 90 venues across the country-mostly boat shows-and more than 2 million people have physically seen the vessel, along with Peterson's exhibit and presentations.

Living out his dream
Peterson said the Sunrider voyage started years before the trip actually began. The California native lived in Hawaii for a decade, had stints as a policeman, firefighter, tour-boat operator, venture capitalist, and publisher of travel and environmental guides for USA Today. By the early 1990s, he had settled in Iowa with his wife and children, and owned a successful publishing company. Still, something yearned inside him.

"The business was going well, but I had a dream of traveling around the world.." he said. "I thought to myself, 'If I don't go now, I will never go.' I wanted to take my son with me on certain legs of the voyage-spend valuable time with him."

Peterson had previously hiked across Alaska with his eldest son and believed it was important to plan another ambitious adventure with his younger boy, who was about 11 years old when Peterson started soliciting sponsors for the voyage. "So I did it," Peterson said. "I closed down the business and dedicated myself to the expedition 100 percent. The cash flow stopped."

Finding support for the voyage
Finding sponsors was the hardest stage of the Sunrider expedition, Peterson said. "I was on the phone for two years, sometimes making 20 phone calls a day knowing that almost every person I would talk to was going to say 'no,'" he said. "I was ruthlessly honest with people and told everyone exactly what I thought … and the sponsors started to come together. The United Soybean Board was among the groups that were totally supportive."

Peterson, a longtime "Zodiac groupie," was intent on making the voyage in a Zodiac boat. The company, famous for manufacturing durable and extremely stable soft-sided boats, had received thousands of requests for boats in the past but had rarely, if ever, given them away. "I've heard they had never given a boat to anyone-not even Jacques Cousteau himself-so it was unprecedented when they said they would supply a boat for my voyage," Peterson said.

After two years of working the phones, Peterson had gained 130 sponsors, including the United Soybean Board, Zodiac, MerCruiser, Earth Day International and MotorBoating magazine.

The boat he received, a 24-foot Zodiac Hurricane 730 rescue model, had a rigid modified deep-V hull. The boat was built with a watertight aluminum cabin, custom built for Sunrider. Solar panels were built into the boat's aluminum canopy to generate electricity in good weather. Sunrider was powered by an off-the-shelf MerCruiser diesel stern drive (a 3.6-liter, 180-horsepower engine). The backup power was a 27-horsepower Yanmar diesel outboard, which was used in emergency situations only.

Peterson is reluctant to place a price tag on Sunrider-it would be almost impossible to itemize out every cost that went into it, he said-but he estimates its value at between $200,000 and $400,000. "The boat itself was worked on by experts in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada), Washington and other places," he said. "If you had to pay for each aspect of the work … let's just say it would be tough for most people to buy a boat like this."

Choosing the fuel
"The Sunrider voyage turned out to be a remarkable voyage … and you know, using biodiesel was a completely rational thing to do," Peterson said. "I knew going into the voyage that biodiesel was a good fuel. Safety was paramount, so I would not have used a fuel I couldn't trust. The appeal of biodiesel was that it was a clean, renewable fuel that didn't stink and wouldn't kill fish. … It was clearly the right thing to do."

Peterson did not have a history with biodiesel before the Sunrider expedition. In fact, he originally wanted to make the trip in a boat powered by solar energy. However, it wasn't safe or practical at the time. "So I started looking at other means of renewable energy," he said. "I knew that a guy had once crossed the Pacific in a boat with two small diesel outboards … so I knew it could be done."

While searching for sponsors, Peterson started investigating biodiesel (which actually hadn't been named biodiesel yet-most referred to it as soybean oil fuel or soydiesel). He found help at the USDA's Office of Energy and the University of Idaho. He learned that biodiesel was being used widely in Europe and had been used in World War II. Still, he said, "The idea of biodiesel was still relatively unknown in America."

In fact, the U.S. National Biodiesel Board had not yet been created and even the United Soybean Board knew little about the renewable fuel.
Peterson tested the performance of various blends of biodiesel in a truck engine, splash blending everything from B100 to B20 in an effort to find out how the engine would react to different mixtures. "The truck ran fine, and I walked away from the experience totally convinced that biodiesel would be a viable fuel for my voyage," he said.

Officials at MerCruiser had never heard of biodiesel, but were interested in how the diesel stern drive would handle the renewable fuel. "They tested 200 gallons of biodiesel at their plant, and the results were better than what they normally achieved with regular diesel," Peterson said.

At that point, Peterson had found his fuel. In fact, he was so enamored by biodiesel and the possibilities it represented that he considered trying to make his own fuel as he traveled around the world. It was, of course, a short-lived idea.

As it turned out, biodiesel was shipped to various ports along the path of the Sunrider voyage; larger boats sometimes carried extra shipments of biodiesel for refueling at sea on the longest legs of the trip. The boat's four permanent below-deck tanks held a total of 250 gallons of fuel while above-deck flexible bladder tanks held another 300-plus gallons. Not much biodiesel was being produced in the United States when the Sunrider expedition began, and the fuel Peterson received throughout the first half of the journey was produced at a pilot plant in Kansas City. Later in the voyage, additional U.S. biodiesel plants came on line and began supplying fuel to the Sunrider expedition.

"I never had problems with biodiesel," Peterson said. "In fact, I found it to be a preferable fuel."

There were times during the voyage when Peterson did not have adequate amounts of biodiesel (for example, one shipment was stolen from a drop point), and Sunrider's tanks had to be topped off with petroleum diesel. "It was never more than a 50/50 blend, but what a difference," Peterson said. "We really had a tough time dealing with the smell and the fumes of regular diesel once we got used to biodiesel. Other than a few occasions, we used nothing but 95 percent to 100 percent biodiesel all the way around the world. I don't think there could be a stronger statement made about a renewable fuel."

The meaning and purpose of the voyage
Throughout the expedition, Peterson stopped in 25 countries, educating those he met and brightening the lives of thousands of children along the way. The Zodiac boat became a virtual floating classroom, demonstrating to the world the viability of biodiesel and the efficiency of solar energy. In addition, Peterson was able to spend valuable time with his youngest son, who joined him on the safest legs of the journey.

The trip took over two years to complete. Peterson said he spent about one year at sea and about 14 months on land during the voyage. Sunrider left Oregon in July 1992, circled the world, and arrived in San Fransisco Bay in early September 1994.

Peterson said the trip had profound influence on his life that he's still interpreting. "It was a linchpin," he explained. "It released all these new possibilities for me in terms of relating to people and business in a way that I never imagined."

n some ways, the Sunrider experience lives on. "The expedition is different for me now than it was the day I got back," Peterson said. "In that way, the trip never really ended. It's still going on from my perspective."

After the expedition, Sunrider was put on display at Disney's Epcot Center for two weeks. That's when Peterson realized that people around the country might want to hear about the voyage and see the boat. Among his many ventures and hobbies, such as working on inflatable boats, Peterson has spent much of the last decade touring the United States, displaying Sunrider and speaking about the voyage. "I have put on twice the mileage showing the boat in America than I did traveling around the world in it," he said, adding that he's bringing Sunrider to a boat show in Baltimore in early 2005.

Peterson hopes that his efforts have helped push biodiesel into the limelight in the United States and around the globe. He said he's excited to see the biodiesel industry grow and he's especially happy to see biodiesel marine applications becoming more common. "On one hand, it's surprising to see how far biodiesel has come," he said. "On the other hand, it's a testament to the fuel itself. Looking back on the expedition, a decade later, I'd say the voyage is a timely reminder of how far it's come."

Tom Bryan is editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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