For eight years, Gary Bruce has been driving 165 kilometers -- each way -- every workday from his farmhouse in rural Kansas to Wichita, where he's a maintenance worker in the boiler house of a big aerospace plant. All those years, gasoline prices kept rising, pushing his family's fuel bills past twelve hundred dollars a month.
So Gary Bruce got a different car. And not a new one, that's for sure. In fact, the diesel-powered, 1983 Chevrolet conversion van is as close to a wreck as one can legally drive. It's badly rusted, has no appreciable shock absorbers, and has been stripped of all but its two front seats. Gary Bruce even found a pack rat living in it when he brought it home. But Mr. Bruce says the "Greasebomb," as his grandchildren call the vehicle, is a joy to drive because it saves him $20 to $25 a day.
That's because, after a good deal of study and the purchase of some pumps and hoses and big vats, Gary Bruce began making his own fuel for the old clunker by recycling used vegetable oil.
"Any oil, any vegetable oil, if you make it right -- make it thin enough and get it hot enough -- will work in a diesel engine," he says. "A German named Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine back in 1900, designed his diesel engine to actually run on peanut oil, so the farmers or whoever needed to use it could make a renewable fuel. Petroleum was discovered and made available at a lower price, so they made a few adjustments and started running [petroleum-based] diesel fuel."
But why doesn't Gary Bruce make ethanol instead? It's a fuel made from corn or milo, which are plentiful throughout farm states like Kansas. He says that would require a complicated and expensive distilling process beyond his means. "I wanted something more simple -- the easiest, least technical way I could. The simpler the better."
So Gary Bruce approached the people who run the cafeterias at his plant -- and then stopped into restaurants between Wichita and his home. Instead of paying someone to haul away their used vegetable oil in which they fry chicken, fish, and potatoes, would they save it for him? "Sometimes they look at you a little funny," he says with a chuckle. "Most of the places now where I stop just say, 'It's back here. Go ahead and pump it out. They can look at me funny. I'm saving a lot of money."
Mr. Bruce hauls the used oil home in small cartons called "cubies." Then he mixes it with a little diesel fuel or kerosene, which keeps the vegetable oil from turning viscous in Kansas's frosty falls and winters. As he puts it, "Cold oil doesn't pump so good."
When he's done with his biofuel recipe, he runs the mixture through three filters. "I filter my vegetable oil down to between one and two microns. One micron is smaller than a human hair, but I can't remember how much smaller. When I get through with that last filter, it's usable. I can just put it right in the Greasebomb."
Why not save himself the trouble and just buy big jugs of pure, clean new and unused vegetable oil? Because, he says with another laugh, "New vegetable oil is more expensive than free vegetable oil, even though it's used."
There's only one problem that family members and passersby on the road have pointed out: The Greasebomb smells like a giant French fry on wheels. And as Mr. Bruce's wife, Sonda, points out, so does Gary from time to time.
"The truck is out at the barn," she admits, "and the barn's a good distance from the house. And so it's only if it's on him, and I make him strip on the back porch before he comes in, so we don't have that smell in the house."
Is she exaggerating for effect, or has this actually happened?"
"No, this actually happens!"
Better a French-fry smell than a fishy smell. Gary Bruce says he won't turn down used veggie oil in which fish or chicken has been deep-fried, but he dislikes it, since bits of burned and blackened batter must be extra-carefully strained in the filtering process. "French fries are great," he observes. "They're not breaded. The oil's a nice amber color. It's just easier to process."
Sonda Bruce says she was skeptical, at first, about her husband's experiments with biofuel out in the barn. But she's pleased with the results and says she's now looking for a "Greasebomb" of her own -- only this time, something more comfortable, and, hopefully, a little better looking.