What It Takes to Drive on Vegetable Power

As gas prices and anxiety about global warming rise, more people are bypassing the corner gas pump to run their cars on vegetable power. Kits are now available to retro-fit cars to run on vegetable oil, and biodiesel pumps are popping up in more and more places.

GUILDERLAND, N.Y. — Joe and Barbara Floeser were cruising for free fuel behind a strip mall when they spotted the Chinese takeout place and stopped the car.

"Do you have any oil you're throwing out?" Joe asked through the back door.

"I'd like your oil ... Our car runs on it."

The suburban couple's 2001 Jetta diesel has been retro-fitted to run on vegetable oil -- even stuff already used to fry egg rolls or chicken wings.

As gas prices and anxiety about global warming rise, more people like the Floesers are bypassing the corner gas pump to run their cars on vegetable power. Kits are now available to create cars like the Floesers' Jetta -- nicknamed "Greased Lightning" -- and biodiesel pumps are popping up in more places.

Either way, a diesel vehicle is a requirement. It also helps to have a sense of initiative -- the sort that can take you to the service door of a Chinese restaurant looking for a fill-up.

"We're just regular people," Barbara said. "We're not scientists, we're not environmentalists ..."

"There's a long list of what we're not," Joe said.

"But we can do this," Barbara said.

Waste oil from food joints is just one option for today's vegetable-powered driver. Coming on strong is biodiesel, a processed vegetable fuel often sold blended with petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is attractive to drivers who don't want to modify their diesel cars. The Floesers' Jetta retrofit cost $795 for the kit plus $600 for installation, but fuel is free for the asking.

Advocates of different systems argue about which is best, but they tend to be alike at heart. They generally are environmentally minded like Barbara Floeser, who felt bad about driving solo in her minivan when the kids were at school, and worse when fill-ups started costing $70. They also, at some level, seem to enjoy sticking it to Big Oil.

"Say goodbye to ExxonMobil & Co., you don't need them anymore," reads the pro-biodiesel Journey to Forever Web site.

Drivers considering any mechanical changes to their cars or putting alternative fuels in their tank should first check if they're voiding warranties.

Biodiesel is simple in some respects: Just put it in your diesel tank and go. First, though, you have to find a source.

The National Biodiesel Board estimates there are more than 800 retail pumps nationwide selling everything from straight biodiesel (called B100) to mixes with petroleum diesel, which are named for the percentage of biodiesel in the blend (e.g., a 20 percent mix is called B20). Biodiesel cooperatives have sprouted up around the nation.

"I hated going to the gas station," said Sienna Wildwood of Berkeley, Calif., who gets her fuel from the worker-owned BioFuel Oasis in her town. "I hope I never have to go again."

Biodiesel prices vary, however, and drivers can end up paying more than if they pumped petroleum diesel.

One way to save money is to make your own biodiesel, either through a cooperative or on your own. It's simple enough to do in your garage -- one Web site claims it's "easier than making beer" -- but typically used substances like lye and methanol make it potentially hazardous.

Some people avoid the fuss and cost by simply blending vegetable oil with petroleum diesel; that is not the same as biodiesel and is not recommended. The Engine Manufacturers Association, a trade group, warns that using gooey vegetable oil in blends can have "significant adverse effects" on diesel engines.

The commercial "Greasecar" system installed in the Floesers' car is designed to get around those problems by using two fuel tanks.

Greasecars run on petroleum diesel for the first five minutes or so until the vegetable oil heats up. Drivers purge vegetable oil from the system in the last five minutes of their trip and switch back to petroleum. Joe Floeser demonstrated on a recent fuel-hunting trip, waiting for the engine temperature to climb before switching the fuel line from petroleum and punching the accelerator. The Jetta zoomed ahead on yesterday's fry grease.

"As you can see," he says, "no loss of power being on vegetable."

The Floesers' fuel supply seems safe as long as Americans keep eating vast amounts of fried food. They make regular circuits around chicken wing joints, diners and Indian restaurants, securing used vegetable oil in plastic five-gallon containers. Restaurant workers are happy to give away their garbage. At the Chinese restaurant, workers had trouble understanding the Floesers across the language barrier, but after some gesturing poured out enough oil to fill two five-gallon containers -- enough to drive about 400 miles.

The Floesers must filter the syrupy brown oil before it goes in their car. It can be done with a simple paper cone, though they recently built an electric filter pump.

Joe Suchecki of the Engine Manufacturers Association warned that long-term effects of vegetable oil systems are unknown. Greasecar founder and president Justin Carven said some Greasecars have run more than 200,000 miles after conversion.

Greasecar reports selling between 100 and 400 kits a month, compared to 20 to 60 a month before Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, biodiesel continues its growth spurt in the United States, with consumption tripling to 75 million gallons last year, according to the National Biodiesel Board.

With busted pipelines in Alaska and turmoil in the Middle East, expect more cars to pump out exhaust with the faint whiff of fried food.

Source: Associate dPress

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