View Full Version : Fill your tank with vegetable oil

05-12-2005, 08:13 PM
Found this on msn.com. Thought it was interesting.

Fill your tank with vegetable oil
Diesel engines can run on just about anything, including used cooking oil. An entire industry is emerging to provide brave 'biodiesel' pioneers with the ingredients for petroleum-free motoring.

By Jim Washburn

One day last year, my musician friend Jonathan drove up in a Mercedes. This was odd, since Jonathan is so resolutely counterculture that he once tried recording an album in the woods, without electricity.
His car's exhaust smelled faintly of french fries, and therein lay the explanation: The new Jonathan Richman tour vehicle -- an '84 300D Turbo -- was running on vegetable oil-derived biodiesel fuel as he and his drummer crisscrossed the nation in it, a deep fryer on wheels.

I was intrigued: Biodiesel comes from renewable resources. It's made from soybeans, corn or other oil crops, saving America's farmers. Or it comes from recycled kitchen grease, saving America's sewers. It pollutes remarkably less than petroleum fuel, and could potentially make the U.S. energy self-sufficient, freed from bargaining with dictators and terror-sponsor states.

And did I mention it smells like french fries?

But I was also suspicious. If it works so well, why isn't everyone already using it? I've fallen prey to New Age wishful thinking before, and that pyramid never did sharpen my razor. Even after cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in Jonathan's car, something about it didn't seem real. If a car runs on vegetable oil, does that mean I can run my TV on sauerkraut?

Endorsed by Rudolf Diesel himself
It turns out biodiesel is not a new idea. When Rudolf Diesel introduced his signature engine at the 1900 Paris Exposition, he said two words as he started it: "Peanut oil." He'd designed his engine so farmers could grow their own fuel. Most diesel engines were indeed run on vegetable oil until the 1920s, when the petroleum industry promoted a gasoline byproduct as diesel fuel.

Environmental concerns, the Iraq war and rising gas prices have spurred a renewed interest in biodiesel, and people have discovered that a diesel automobile can run on it with little or no alteration. (Cars more than a decade old should have fuel lines checked, because the highly solvent fuel eats some rubber compounds. It cleans engines so effectively that fuel filters also bear watching.) It can be used interchangeably with standard diesel fuel, and it's had well over a million miles of road-testing.

I started seriously thinking about joining the biodiesel generation when a butterscotch Mercedes 240D turned up for sale around the corner for $3,500. Saving the environment is nice, but I really like butterscotch. Test-driving the car, however, I found that friends' concerns about the model's 67-horsepower engine proved true. The 240D has a reputation for running forever, but that's also apparently how long it takes to get anywhere in it.

The biggest hurdle: where to tank up
Even if this wasn't the diesel steed for our experiment in vehicular unction, I was now set on getting one. My wife expressed doubts about the biodiesel lifestyle, though, when I suggested we could store the 55-gallon drum in the bushes near the garage.

"Over my particularly dead body. What 55-gallon drum?"

"The one from which we hand-pump the goop into our car, unless we want to drive an hour each way to Cudahy to refuel."

"Why don't you buy a nuclear submarine instead? Then you can go looking for fuel rods."

Infrastructure, it turns out, does not abound for biodiesel, particularly where we live in Orange County, Calif. One can either expend gallons of fuel driving to the sole station in the greater L.A. basin that carries biodiesel, at $3.50 a gallon, or have it delivered to one's home for $4 a gallon, which is more what we're accustomed to paying for wine in this household. If there's ever a wine-based fuel, maybe they'll call it "Vindiesel."

What is biodiesel, anyway?
Despite biodiesel's evident advantages, the fuel's stuck in a regulatory tar pit in some states. In California, for example, the government classifies B100 fuel (a mix of 80% vege-oil and 20% alcohol, favored by environmentalists and petrophobes) as a "blend stock" rather than a fuel onto itself, leaving retailers unsure of the legality of selling it. New federal tax credits for biodiesel also appear to exclude B100. (The more readily available B20 is 80% petro-diesel, runs somewhat cleaner than standard diesel and retails for around $2.65 a gallon.)

If your car is under warranty, Volkswagen (which dominates the U.S. diesel passenger car market) regards any blend above B5 (5% vegetable oil) as voiding that warranty -- though several drivers report dealers have honored their warranty anyway.

BioFuel Oasis is a Berkeley, Calif., co-op that is going by the book, having dealt with state agencies to get a variance to sell B100. Customers are required to sign up as “fleet” members, and to report regularly on their vehicles' performance. It's probably less hassle to join one of Berkeley's cannabis clubs, but the fleet has some 460 members. By collecting data and jumping through the regulatory hoops, the co-op is helping the fuel gain mainstream acceptance, says SaraHope Smith, one of BioFuel Oasis' five worker-owners. To her, it's worth the effort.

"Biodiesel struck me as a great and right thing to do," she said. "It's renewable. It's clean. It's grown by our farmers. It fits all the models of a culture that's taking care of itself in the long term."

And then there's Willie Nelson
A few dozen miles away, Les Gripkey fills up on B100 at a San Jose truck stop, no questions asked. The station is a 10-mile detour from Gripkey's usual work commute between Boulder Creek and Redwood City.

A co-worker had loaned him a book about biodiesel, Joshua Tickell's "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank". "That was right when the push for the war with Iraq was going on, which made me decide to take this one step away from contributing to the geopolitics of oil consumption," Gripkey said. He found a 1984 Volvo wagon for $1,650 on Craig's List, had the hoses checked and has been getting 30 miles per gallon on B100 ever since.

Gripkey's "one step" also had a more far-reaching effect: He gave a copy of the Tickell book to his friend Jonathan Richman, who passed it on to Neil Young, who started running his tour vehicles on biodiesel. Young's example influenced his friend Willie Nelson's decision to become a partner in an enterprise that's now promoting and distributing BioWillie biodiesel (a B20 blend) at truck stops.

Be your own oil company
Harking to the diesel engine's early days, some people are concocting their own fuel. "It's trivially easy to make, frankly," said one adherent I spoke with, Dan Redig, a Carlsbad, Calif., computer consultant. His litany of the chemical formulas, calculations, processes, washings and dash of lye involved in producing homebrew B100 left me thinking that it might be easier to extract maple syrup from a dinette set.

Redig, however, has produced several batches of the stuff that have gone into his 2004 Jetta TDI. He drives the car some 600 miles a week, all of them more smoothly traversed than with conventional diesel, he says. "It's a little zippier. It lubricates better. You have fewer oil changes. You get better mileage. And it's a greener fuel any way you look at it."

Instead of converting the oil, another approach is to convert your vehicle. A friend put me in touch with Matt Gurney, director of business operations for Seattle's Fare Start restaurants, which train homeless persons for careers in the restaurant industry. It's not just the employees finding a second life there. The old oil from the deep-fat fryer is heated and run through a filter, and then it's down the hatch into Gurney's '84 Peugeot diesel wagon to a second fuel tank installed in the spare tire well.

He paid $400 for the car ("I went for a junker, since I wasn't sure this would work," he said) and $800 for a conversion kit to run on straight vegetable oil. A hose from the radiator runs to a copper coil in the tank, heating the oil to a more combustible and viscous state before it heads to the engine. While the oil heats, Gurney runs on commercial B100 (carried by several Seattle stations) from his main tank, then flips a switch.

It took him two weekends to install the kit and work out the bugs, and now he essentially drives for free, getting sufficient fuel for his around-town jaunts from Fare Start's sole deep fryer. FYI, he says, "The exhaust doesn't always smell like french fries. It can smell like fish or whatever we cooked the most of that week."

All this information wasn't bringing me much closer to boarding the bandwagon: The nearest BioWillie station is four states away; I don't see myself making bathtub biodiesel; and neither do I relish telling my wife that, as we drive into a better tomorrow, we might be reeking of fish sticks.

Fortunately, a doctor visit and some unforeseen medical expenses will forestall any vegemobile purchases for a while. By the time we're solvent again, maybe biodiesel will be more accepted and available. Then, for the few thousand dollars an old-but-solid diesel car costs -- plus what will doubtless still be some added inconvenience -- we'll be proudly motoring into the future alongside our Prius-driving friends.

05-12-2005, 09:29 PM
I love it. I heard about these guys. Good find!!!!!

05-13-2005, 02:39 AM
Thanks bigguy! :)

05-13-2005, 09:21 AM
Just wait until you get your new car then start testing their theory!!!