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Piedmont Biofuels, Pittsboro, North Carolina

A work made of chromogenic print, from the series "sweet earth: experimental utopias in america".

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  • A work made of chromogenic print, from the series "sweet earth: experimental utopias in america".


April 2005


Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

About this artwork


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Photography and Media


Joel Sternfeld


Piedmont Biofuels, Pittsboro, North Carolina


United States


Made 2005


Chromogenic print, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"


No markings recto or verso The original diesel engine invented by Rudolf Diesel in Germany in 1893 ran on peanut oil. Henry Ford, who powered his first cars with ethanol, a plant-derived energy source, shared this belief in biomass fuels and their virtues, but around 1920 the oil industry all but halted their use in America. Leif Forer, Rachel Burton and Lyle Estill founded Piedmont Biofuel Co-op in the fall of 2002. Worker-members produce pure biodiesel (B100) from waste vegetable oil collected from local restaurants. After it has been refined, the vegetable oil can be used in any standard diesel vehicle. The fifty co-op members can fill up their cars from this tank or have it delivered. Although the co-op has been a promoter of “micro-nodal” energy production, offering classes and conferences and helping other small co-ops start up (“We have long suggested that homemade biodiesel holds the promise of upending the overarching, top-down energy infrastructure that holds most of us in its grasp”), when an abandoned chemical factory near the co-op recently became available, the decision was made to expand. The co-op now has the capacity to produce up to one million gallons of biodiesel per year. Besides preventing environmental degradation and scarring of the landscape caused by drilling and other oil infrastructure, biofuels release fewer harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Cars run on biofuel emit sixty-seven percent fewer smog-producing compounds and half as much carbon dioxide as conventional vehicles. With the installation of about eight hundred dollars worth of equipment, any standard diesel vehicle can be converted to run on unrefined vegetable oils, obtainable from any local fast food restaurant. The oil has all the same emissions benefits as refined biofuels—but the exhaust smells like french fries. From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005


26.5 × 33.2 cm (image); 27.9 × 35.5 cm (paper)

Credit Line

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall

Reference Number


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