Driving from Vermont to California in an old car running on used vegetable oil collected from restaurants isn't an ideal way to travel, but journalist Greg Melville did it anyway. VOA's Faiza Elmasry tells us about the first-ever cross-country french fry drive and what it means for the future of alternative-fuel transportation.
When Greg Melville and his wife decided to buy a car two years ago, they purchased a used diesel-powered station wagon and converted it to run on vegetable oil.
"It was my wife's idea," he says. "She wanted to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we're putting in the air - greenhouse gases - because cars that run on waste oil do that [reduce carbon dioxide].
"But for me, it was more about cost. I had found out from some research that restaurants are happy to give away their waste grease for free in many cases because usually they have to pay to get it removed, like garbage."
Gearing up to Drive on Fry-Based Fuel
The diesel engine was originally designed to run on vegetable oil, as well as fuel from petroleum.
"About a century ago, Rudolf Diesel created the diesel engine, and when he did it, he displayed it by using vegetable oil to power it," he says. "And his thought was that if he did that, it would allow farmers to be more sustainable. They could grow their own fuel, and it would really kind of give them more freedom I suppose. So the diesel engine still can run on vegetable oil today."
But straight vegetable oil is thicker than conventional diesel fuel, and for the best performance, some changes are needed in the engine. Melville explains that the conversion is not a complicated process.
"It's surprisingly simple," he says. "The challenge is that it gels up and solidifies at fairly high temperatures. So what we did is we bought an old Mercedes diesel wagon. We bought a kit that is basically a separate tank for the vegetable oil.
"You start the car on regular diesel, and as the engine warms up, it warms up the vegetable oil. Then you just press a button, and a valve shuts off the fuel lines from the diesel and turns on the fuel lines from the vegetable oil tank. As you're driving along, on the fly, all of a sudden, you are driving on vegetable oil."
Two Dudes Hit the Road
Then, Melville decided to have an adventure with his fry-oil-powered car: travel from Vermont on the East Coast to California on the West Coast, completing the first-ever cross-country vegetable oil drive.
"It seemed like the ultimate driving adventure, to make it across the United States without stopping at a single gas pump," he says. "My college buddy, Iggy, who had gone on a long road trip with me before, lived not far away from me. All of a sudden, I remembered him. He dropped everything, and he was willing to do it."
The 6,200-kilometer trip took eight days, 720 liters of used vegetable oil and 15 liters of fossil fuel. Melville shares his road adventure in a new book, Greasy Rider: Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car, and a cross-country search for a greener future. The trip, he says, was mostly exciting - and sometimes challenging.
"We had some real challenge finding the oil, because the waste oil is becoming so in-demand for biofuels now," he says. "When you're driving along, it's not any stronger than the smell of exhaust, but it just smells like fried foods.
"Inside the car, where we stored much of the oil, was not very pleasant smelling. I think it saturated our clothes and everything inside the car. I think we were not very pleasant company when we got out of the car and went to restaurants or met other people because of the smell."
Greasy Rider Highlights Green Movement in America
In spite of the smell, he says, the two friends were able to grab people's attention and raise awareness about a more sustainable way of life.
"Some people looked at us, wondering what we were doing, driving in a car with a big metal tank in the back that we were pouring strange liquid into and wearing rubber gloves for," he says. "But for the most part, people were very receptive.
"I think there is really a greater understanding that we need to find new solutions. People are really understanding now the importance of making adjustments in their lives in order to ensure a better environment for their children and grandchildren."
In Greasy Rider, Melville describes the people he met on the road who are part of the green movement in America.
"I talk about some farmers in the Midwest who have put up wind turbines, and they sell the electricity they generate back to the power company, and they're actually making more money off of the piece of land that has the windmill on it than they are from corn they're planting around it," he says.
"I talk about the Google headquarters and how Google powers 30 percent of their headquarters with solar power. The solar panels are going to pay for themselves within eight years. So they'll essentially be getting 30 percent of their electricity for free at that point."
Melville admits that a used-oil-powered car is not the alternative vehicle of the future. It can be time consuming, messy and smelly. But the goal of his adventure was to inspire car companies and smart individuals to look for that vehicle. He says he hopes his trip will be one more step toward finding creative energy alternatives that are more practical, environmentally friendly and cheap.