Vermont Man Runs Diesel Car on Cooking Oil

06/03/02 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) In 1897, Rudolf Diesel invented the engine that bears his name. Few people realize that his motor was designed to run on peanut oil. After Diesel's death, his ideas about fueling engines with vegetable oil were abandoned. Diesel engines were modified to run on the cheapest fuel available: petroleum. But now, concerns about global warming and imported oil have put a new focus on alternative fuels.

One of the alternatives comes direct from the deep frier in the form of recycled cooking oil. At least one of the nation's "cooking oil cars" is chugging along the roads of southern Vermont.

VPR's Susan Keese went along for a ride.


(Keese) When Abe Noe-Hays starts his 1989 diesel car outside his house in Dummerston, it sounds like any other 13-year-old car. (Sound of car engine turning over.) A few miles down the road, he flips a switch on his dash and he's driving an environmental statement: a car that runs on used cooking oil.

Cooking oil is thicker than regular diesel fuel. But once it's warmed up, Noe-Hays says, it runs just fine:

(Noe-Hays) "I have to start the car on diesel fuel because the vegetable oil is too thick to flow.... And then once the car is hot, then I can switch over to vegetable oil, because the vegetable oil is then warmer and more free flowing.... I m going to switch over now.... The only thing you might notice is that the engine gets a little quieter on the vegetable oil because it has better lubricating properties than diesel fuel. So it runs a little quieter, a little smoother. But that's the only real difference."

(Keese) Another noticeable difference is a subtle french fry odor. But the big difference of course, is in the car's reduced environmental impact. It's not perfect, Noe-Hays says. But it is a greener alternative.

(Noe-Hays) "There s still an impact because there are still pollutants that come out the tail pipe. But there's less of an impact than if I used fossil fuels. Instead of using a ... virgin fuel, I'm using frier oil, which is garbage. And I can turn that garbage into another prime fuel that I can burn without having to mine it out of the earth. Also, since it's a plant-based fuel, there's the potential to have a lesser effect on global warming because it's using carbon dioxide that has been in the atmosphere and taken out by plants, and then I'm releasing it again."

(Keese) Noe-Hays has been driving his veggie powered car for a year and a half. He's taken it 1,500 miles to New Brunswick and back. He's planning a cross-country trip this summer.

It cost him about $600 to convert a second hand Jetta, using a kit from a Massachusetts company called GreaseCar. He installed a switch, a second fuel tank in the trunk, and some insulated tubing that uses hot water from the radiator to heat the cooking oil as it flows towards the engine.

Noe-Hays gets his fuel for free from restaurant owners who normally pay to have their used oil hauled away. Bert Wilkins of Bert's Chuckwagon, a Putney roadside lunch spot, is happy to help out:

(Wilkins) "I think it's great. I think it's just fabulous that he's headed to Maine and on his trips and he gets to use what I've cooked people's french fries in."

(Keese) To filter the oil, which is full of food particles, Noe-Hays uses an electric pump equipped with a fuel filter. The process takes some dedication, he notes, but the technology keeps improving. Environmental innovators all over Vermont and around the globe are experimenting with variations on the same theme.

(Noe-Hays) "Since I converted my car, I've probably had half a dozen people ask me about how they can do it to their own car in this area."

(Keese) Alex Wilson is the publisher of Environmental Building News, a newsletter specializing in environmentally sound alternatives. Wilson has reservations about growing corps specifically for biofuels. It can take a gallon of diesel on the farm to raise enough soy beans for a gallon of biofuels. Using recycled cooking oil, he says, makes more sense:

(Wilson) "It's a good solution for two reasons. One, it's helping reduce need for fossil fuel, and two, it's helping reduce a waste problem."

(Keese) Noe-Hays sees his veggie-powered car as a small step in the face of a big problem.

(Noe-Hays) "It's one answer and it's a step in the right direction.... But right now there's not enough used frier oil to run all of our vehicles off of it. There's certainly enough to run a lot of vehicles off of. And there's a lot of frier oil that's going to waste right now that could be used very easily. But conservation is still key. Not using as much energy is the big answer, I think."

For Vermont Public Radio, I m Susan Keese in Dummerston.

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