Fueled by Trash

Jun 10, 2008 Published under Environment, Innovation, United States

So I guess the Zaidmans are not the only ones running their van on vegetable oil.   Greg Melville reports in the New York Times – Greased Lightning – about how he powers his station wagon with left-over waste oil from french fries.  He makes the point – if $1,000 can help him refurbish his engine this way, shouldn’t the big car companies be able to get it together once and for all?

New York Times

Greased Lightning


Published: June 9, 2008

South Burlington, Vt.

FRYER grease bandits? Have people really begun pilfering waste oil from behind restaurants around the country to use as biodiesel, as I’ve been reading? I certainly hope so. Not that I’m condoning such an act. In addition to its illegality, waste oil banditry makes my own fuel search — in my grease-powered 1985 Mercedes diesel station wagon — more difficult. But at least the $4-a-gallon times are leading more drivers to find fossil fuel alternatives, just as I did when I converted my car a couple of years ago.

Yes, I drive on free fuel, with the scent of fried onion rings billowing from my tailpipe. At the time of my conversion, gas was around $2.20 a gallon. My neighbors laughed at me. With gas at double the price today, more and more people want to check out what’s in my garage. Of course, what they find there isn’t entirely pleasant. Waste vegetable oil power is a dirty business. My supplier Alex sets aside used grease in five-gallon containers that I pick up each week from his restaurant down the street. I take them to my garage and open the lids to invariably find a dark brown goo garnished by French fries and a sediment of meat scraps. I heat the contents for a few minutes in a metal gas can and pour them through a felt filter bag to be cleansed of impurities. Beneath my work area, a tire-sized slick coats the concrete floor, and whenever I open the garage door from the outside, I’m blasted by the scent of fast food.

The grease is then deposited directly into a 15-gallon tank installed in the back of my wagon, as part of the grease-power kit I bought for about $1,000. I paid $1,000 more to get everything installed in the wagon by a local mechanic. The kit heats the grease to a watery viscosity, so it travels quickly through the fuel lines. No major work was done to the engine, because when hot vegetable oil is ignited in a diesel engine’s combustion chamber, it produces almost as much energy as petro diesel does — so my fuel economy on grease is nearly the same as with petro diesel, about 20 miles per gallon. Better yet, my carbon footprint when driving is reduced by well more than half.

Does it work? Well, not long ago a friend and I, armed with a mobile pumping and filtering system, drove cross-country. Relying on the generosity of other grease-powered drivers (there are more of us than you think!) and many restaurant owners, we made it from Vermont to California in six days. I should note that our clothes were soaked with oil stains by the time we arrived, and the car’s interior smelled like the back of a garbage truck on a July afternoon.

Unfortunately, Americans don’t gorge themselves on enough French fries and jalapeño poppers to power every car, but vegetable vehicles like mine suggest that fossil fuel dependency is not as intractable a problem as we may believe. I mean, if I can drive across the country in a grease car — and I’ve never been accused of having mechanical skills — shouldn’t American automobile companies and the government be able to find inexpensive and ingenious ways to improve fuel efficiency in all vehicles?

Greg Melville is the author of the forthcoming “Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future.”

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