Green Transportation Basics: Vegetable Oil Conversion

For a more sustainable way to travel, try a vegetable oil-powered vehicle.

| September 8, 2011

True to its title, Green Transportation Basics by Dan Chiras (New Society Publishers, 2010) provides information on everything you need to know about sustainable cars and driving. Covering hybrids, boidiesel, and a host of other green car options, this book is a must-read for anyone looking to travel more sustainably. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Straight Vegetable Oil.”  

If you own a diesel car or truck or are in the market for a diesel vehicle, you may want to consider powering your vehicle with vegetable oil. Yes, the exact same oil you use to whip up a healthy stir-fry or prepare artery-clogging fried chicken can be used to power a diesel vehicle.  

Vegetable oil burns surprisingly clean in diesel vehicles, and is renewable and much more environmentally sustainable than gasoline or ordinary diesel (aka petro-diesel). To run a vehicle on vegetable oil, however, you’ll need to first install a conversion kit — don’t just pour vegetable oil in your tank. And remember this, too: Only diesel cars and trucks can be converted to run on vegetable oil. Gasoline-powered vehicles cannot. Period. 

Vegetable Oil Fuel Terminology 

Advocates of veggie oil cars use a number of terms, often interchangeable, to describe this fuel. The term waste vegetable oil, or WVO, is sometimes used, but only refers to vegetable oil that’s been discarded from restaurants. Straight vegetable oil (SVO) is the term more commonly used. It refers to both waste vegetable oil from restaurants and refined vegetable oil — that is, oil that’s not been used previously.

Diesel Engines and Diesel Fuel  

The diesel engine got its start in the 1870s, thanks to the pioneering work of Rudolf Diesel, a bright young engineering student attending the Polytechnic High School of Germany (the equivalent of an engineering college). After learning how inefficient conventional engines were, Diesel decided to design and build a more efficient one. In 1892, after years of work, Rudolf Diesel obtained a patent for the engine that now bears his name.

Although it was considered a breakthrough in engine technology, Diesel’s invention was pretty similar to conventional gasoline engines in many respects. For example, the diesel engine is still a two- or four-stroke internal combustion engine. Like its predecessor, the diesel engine transforms chemical energy in the molecules of the fuel into mechanical energy. As with engines in conventional vehicles, combustion of the fuel inside the cylinders creates a series of small explosions that drives the pistons. The pistons, in turn, are connected to a crankshaft. The up-and-down motion of the pistons creates a rotary motion that turns the wheels propelling the vehicle forward. (You can view an animation of a four-stroke diesel engine online.)

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