It was an idyllic August morning in southern Germany when I first saw a farmer pour vegetable oil into his tractor. I watched him lift the heavy jug of yellow liquid up, balance the lip of the jug on the tractor's filler hose, then pour the vegetable oil directly into the fuel tank. I wondered if I was dreaming or if he was crazy. Little did I know ...
The Idea Behind the Veggie Van
The following year my wife and I, then seniors in college, undertook to write a joint thesis on energy and the environment. We dreamed of finding a place in the country and having an organic farm. But as we researched the state of the planet, our dreams began to fade. We learned that global warming, urban sprawl and the pollution and depletion of our natural resources are no longer localized problems. We became convinced that unless consumption patterns change, our children's Earth will be but a shadow of the world we now know.
We decided to do something radical to bring attention to at least one environmental problem and a possible solution. Our thoughts returned to the farmer and his jug of yellow liquid. Suddenly, the idea hit: We would drive a Winnebago, equipped with a standard diesel engine, on a cross-country trek fueled by leftover vegetable oil from fast food restaurants. We would turn the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chickens of America into a chain of low-cost gas stations. But could so outrageous a plan really stand a chance? Well ...
A Bit of Biodiesel History
Rudolf Diesel shocked reputable scientists and inventors at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris by pouring peanut oil directly into his newly unveiled diesel engine. While at the time revolutionary, no idea could have been more natural for an innovator who had spent his childhood in the agricultural provinces of France and Germany. Throughout his career, Diesel promoted the benefits of agricultural fuel. In a speech given in Germany in 1911, he declared, "The diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it."
Two years later, Diesel was on a trip across the English Channel when he disappeared. Mysteriously, his body was never found. The English newspapers suggested that he had been assassinated by foreign agents.
After Diesel's death, the idea of fueling engines with vegetable oil was quickly and quietly swept under the rug. His original designs were modified and diesel engines were made to run on the cheapest, most abundant fuel available: petroleum.
It wasn't until the oil crisis of the 1970s that the idea of using vegetable oil as an engine fuel was again given serious thought. There was, however, a key obstacle: vegetable oil is too thick to use directly in modern diesel engine fuel injection systems.
Not to be dissuaded, university researchers in the United States and Europe set to work on the problem, eventually devising three practicable solutions: 1) mix the vegetable oil with a lighter fuel such as kerosene, 2) heat the vegetable oil before it gets to the fuel injection system, and 3) chemically "crack" the vegetable oil molecule to make it smaller. Since the chemical process used to crack the vegetable oil is simple, reliable and inexpensive, it became the method of choice for producing biodiesel fuel.
Biodiesel is easily made from vegetable oil, alcohol and a catalyst, through a process called transesterification. The only by-product is glycerin, which can be used to make soap or any one of thousands of other products. Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine and burns 75% cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel. It can be made from any vegetable oil, including soy, canola, sunflower, hemp, coconut and even used cooking oils or animal fat.
It is highly lubricating, which actually makes it better for diesel engines than diesel fuel. But the best thing about biodiesel is that it requires absolutely no engine modifications. To use it, you just pour it into the fuel tank. It even mixes with regular petroleum diesel fuel.
The Veggie Van Is Born
Determined to "fill 'er up" at America's fast food restaurants, we embarked on what turned out to be a frustrating search for an inexpensive, small diesel motor home. At first, we found nothing even close to our price range. But just when it had begun to look hopeless, we happened upon an unimpressive, white 1986 Winnebago LeSharo. It has a small, two-liter diesel engine and gets 25 miles per gallon. The perfect model!
Back at campus, we approached nearly every member of the faculty with our idea. Finally, a chemistry professor and a math professor agreed to help us. From then on, support for the Veggie Van project snowballed. The college gave us a garage to work in. The cafeteria offered an endless supply of used cooking oil. Students volunteered to help us at all hours of the day and night.
We made our first batch of biodiesel in a test tube. Our second batch was made in a blender. Soon, we upgraded to a five-gallon bucket, then to a 15-gallon pot. Using a Volkswagen Jetta as a guinea pig, we set out to discover the secrets of powering a vehicle on vegetable oil. We were determined to get our Veggie Van running on biodiesel by the end of the school year—no matter what the cost to "Gretta, the Greasy Jetta's" engine. For months we experimented, finally succeeding in running the Jetta on up to 80% straight fryer grease for more than 5,000 miles.
When we were confident making biodiesel on a small scale, it was time to up production. My friends and I scavenged boatyards, junkyards, and backyards, turning up a military steam kettle, a tugboat filter, a champion juicer, an ancient diesel engine from a sailboat, some scrap metal and some plumbing parts. From these we fashioned "The Green Grease Machine," a crude biodiesel processor that we mounted onto a trailer, then hitched to the back of the Veggie Van. We were ready to hit the road.
The Veggie Van USA Tour
With the help of students and community volunteers, we turned our Winnebago into a rolling recycling exhibit; art students covered the van with a Van Gogh-esque field of sunflowers. Since we'd be living on the road for a while, we installed a 200-watt solar power system to run our computers, TV, lights and refrigerator. The Veggie Van was visibly transformed, but inside the engine remained the same. The only thing we changed was the fuel we poured into it. But, oh, what a change! We marveled as the exhaust went from a cloud of black, smelly smoke to a clean, french fry-scented puff of air.
We set off, the Green Grease Machine in tow, to traverse more than 10,000 miles of American highways and visit some 20 major cities and 25 states. There was no end to the amount of used cooking oil available to fuel the van. In fact, our greasy voyage didn't even put a dent in the three billion gallons of used vegetable oil produced annually in the United States.
Life on the American road was a nonstop, colorful adventure. The first question people always asked us was: "Does it really run on vegetable oil?" One whiff of the exhaust was enough to convince most skeptics, because it does, believe it or not, smell like french fries.
During our months on the road we met farmers who want to run their equipment on oil from the crops that they grow. We spoke with urban dwellers who want public transportation without the asphyxiating pollution. We met with CEOs, environmental leaders and students of all ages who want to study clean technologies. We talked a little and listened a lot.
By the time the Veggie Van USA Tour ended, we were sure of people's concern for the environment and their willingness to work to make a difference. We had received over a thousand e-mails of support and encouragement. We formed an organization called GreenTeach and began giving biodiesel demonstrations and presentations at schools and conferences. We compiled file cabinets full of biodiesel research, combined with our own experience, and wrote a book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel.
My wife and I still dream of having a place in the country someday. But now we also see solar panels, fields of sunflowers, a small oil press and a diesel tractor in our future.