Just yesterday a Muni bus pulled up next to me. The door swung open, and the driver gestured at me to roll down my car window. I took a short breath. Had I cut him off? Was I blocking a bus stop? Was he going to chastise me for driving alone instead of riding his shiny bus? Then I remembered my bumper sticker. “Hey man, does that thing really run on vegetable oil?” he called.
“Yup, any diesel engine will, it’s pretty simple.”
“Can you go fast on the highway?” He looked happily skeptical.
“Oh yeah, as fast as you’d want to go.”
“Wow, good stuff.” He laughed, waved, and rolled on.
When my girlfriend Camie and I drove across the country recently in a car emblazoned with “Powered by Vegetable Oil” on the hatch, we expected the curiosity of strangers—and we got it. In Nevada a Nascar-clad fellow driving an enormous Dodge pickup took off his mirrored shades long enough to look under the hood to figure out whether or not he could rig up a similar system. In the shadow of Mount Rushmore (no lie) the curiosity of the local peace officer likely got me out of a sizeable fine (I’d lost track of the speed limit while trapped in Cougar
Mellencamp reverie—no lie). On the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachussetts, a middle-aged woman and her mother refused to obey a green light until they found out, “What’s the stahry wit’ ya cah?” In Ontario, the local mechanic warned, “If it smells like donuts, you better watch out for bears.”
So does it really run on vegetable oil? The answer is more nuanced than a hearty “yes,” and it became considerably more so along the way. When Rudolf Diesel designed his engine over a hundred years ago, it was intended to run on peanut oil. Before his engine made it to mass production, Diesel mysteriously flopped over the side of a passenger ship into the icy Atlantic. Conspiracy theorists claim it was the work of corporate oil interests. Diesel engines were subsequently presented as using a processed petroleum fuel. You can look at the nascent veggie-fuel movement as justice for Rudolf if you like.
Any diesel engine, including our little Golf, will combust vegetable oil. Unfortunately, when it’s cold, vegetable oil runs a bit too thick for most engines. There are three basic solutions: Modify the oil chemically to produce “biodiesel”; install a system that heats the oil in the fuel tank or on its way to the engine; or install an auxiliary tank so the engine can be started and warmed up on conventional diesel (or biodiesel) from the main tank and then switch over.
When we decided to put a bit of idealism into action, we bought an old Mercedes and began running it on biodiesel. I thought I’d begin processing my own biodiesel, but the toxic chemicals and required space were prohibitive (though even a small yard, garage, or ventilated basement would do). It’s possible to purchase it commercially, but it isn’t terribly convenient or economical (though each new convert increases the demand). In the process of figuring this out, the Mercedes began to fall apart beneath our feet.
I started thinking about other options and got fixated on late ’90s VWs. Given the rising price of gas (diesel is cheaper than unleaded and VW diesels get over 50 mpg), it was a seller’s market. When I finally came across one with a vegetable oil system already installed, offered at a good price by a nice guy, near where my parents live on the East Coast, I gulped and jumped. Visions of pulling up to the McDonald’s take-out window and asking for all their used fry oil to be dumped in my tank sealed the bargain.
If only it were so simple. A road trip isn’t actually the best way to start this new low-consumption lifestyle. It turns out that franchise fast-food restaurants need higher corporate approval to allow access to their waste (perhaps because McDonald’s lost millions in a lawsuit after animal fat was found in their supposedly vegetarian fries). Used oil has to be filtered before going into the tank, and that can be time-consuming and messy (my oily footprints are still visible on my parents’ driveway where I cleaned out and reassembled the filter system). It is also best to have a trusty source of oil, because oil that has been sitting too long, is mixed with water, has too much animal fat, or was heated too many times can damage the engine.
We had a decent amount of oil in the tank when we left Massachusetts and even supplemented it with five gallons bought at Costco. We figured we’d have to stop once a day and find a supply. By the time we reached the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we started to get desperate. We weren’t having any luck finding a suitable source, and the story of our trip was provoking more hilarity than respect. When we pulled into an isolated mom-and-pop restaurant, as usual amusement ran high, with people called out from the kitchen, office, and bathroom to listen to our request. Turned out they had a bucket of oil that they had just taken out of the fryer. We were welcome to it. Something about that oil set off premonitions, but we were so eager to sing, “We’re driving for free!” that we went for it. For half an hour it ran smooth as, well, oil. A half-hour later we were sitting in the only AAA towing garage on Lake Ontario, discussing with the kind, large proprietors other Volkswagens they’d known, why ours sounded like a Mack truck, and the best route to Escanaba, which contained the only VW dealer within 500 miles.
The problem turned out to be a minor adjustment (mechanical timing), and we were unclear whether to blame the vegetables or not. But a day was lost and our schedule suddenly seemed martial; a wedding to attend the next day and then a quick solo haul for me from the Mississippi to the Bay. Combining urgency with a dread at getting stuck in the midst of the Wall Drug advertising campaign that masquerades as South Dakota, I decided to ignore the veggie option for a while (the remaining eight states). It felt like breaking a promise.
We arrived back in the Bay Area ready to renew our veggie vows, find that busy fry stand, set up a system for easy weekly filtering, and participate in the small but growing
alternative fuels community. Next time you’ve finished with that deep fryer, consider recycling the oil.•t