Using Vegetable Oil Fuel: The Veggie Van

Learn about using biodiesel made from recycled vegetable oil to power a vehicle.

| August/September 1999

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.

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