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Veggie vehicles anyone? Fryer oil does it

One Write's Perspective

Recently, I drove my new Volkswagen diesel Jetta around town for a week, traveled up to Hattiesburg, came back and drove around another week – without having to refuel. At 44 miles per gallon on the highway, I can get nearly 500 miles on one tank. I go for so long without having to visit a service station that it is a good thing the car beeps a warning when I’m down to an eighth of a tank.

The current high fuel prices are causing hardship to working folks – particularly those with a long commute – and many types of businesses. In these days of competing in a world economy, often manufacturers can`t pass on those higher energy costs to customers.

While I have sympathy for people who are hurting from high energy costs, the silver lining is that it also provides big incentives to become more energy efficient. I have estimated over five years at present prices, my fuel costs will be $3,408. For a car that gets 22 miles per gallon, in those five years my fuel costs would be $7,272. That results in savings of $3,864 – quite a significant amount of money.

Fuel efficiency makes sense not only economically, but environmentally. I live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which during hot summer months often has smog levels that exceed health standards. Excess smog can trigger asthma attacks. Motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of air pollution. By increasing fuel economy, you are reducing pollution, while also conserving non-renewable natural resources.

Greater fuel efficiency also impacts our security. Besides the obvious regarding the conflicts in the Mid East, there are concerns about the disruption that could occur from global warming impacts caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Former U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix surprised many recently when he said that he is more concerned about global warming than war.

“To me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war,” Blix said. “We will have regional conflicts and use of force, but world conflicts I do not believe will happen any longer. But the environment, that is a creeping danger. I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict.”

Some people might question my choice of a diesel rather than one of the hybrid electric vehicles that get even better gas mileage. Gallon per gallon, diesel creates more emissions than gasoline. But that can be offset with greater fuel economy. Another benefit is diesel motors last much longer than gasoline motors. That`s why diesel is the engine of choice for the 18-wheeler truck drivers who do long hauls back and forth across the continent. Certainly getting twice the miles out of an engine is good for the environment – and my pocketbook.

Another reason was the chance to run off a renewable fuel that doesn`t contribute to smog – but leaves me going down the road smelling like French fries. I was recently visited by a young couple from Oregon, Scott D. Smith and Annaliese Watson, who were on a three-month tour of the South. They were fueling their trip in a VW Vanagon off used fryer oil from restaurants.

When Scott and Anna contact a restaurant to ask if they have any used fryer oil they can have to fuel their van, the request often is greeted with disbelief. One restaurant manager hung up on them on the telephone believing it was a crank call. But usually once they explain, most restaurants are more than happy to unload some used fryer grease on them.

The couple adapted the Vanagon to run off the used oil from restaurants after reading the book “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel.”

Used fryer oil can be blended with alcohol and diesel for a biodiesel mix that can be put in the vehicle`s normal diesel tank. But to be almost entirely a veggie-fueled vehicle, the couple purchased a $400 conversion kit that allows the oil to be used to run the vehicle for all except during a few minutes at the beginning and ending of trips.

“We had been talking about an American road trip for quite a while,” Scott said. “But it seemed prohibitively expensive because the only way to see this country is by car, really. Additionally we didn`t feel good about putting that much pollution in the air just to see the sites. We were on a freeway in Portland, Ore., when a small Mercedes passed us with homemade sign that said: ‘Do you smell French fries? This car is running on recycled fryer grease.’ So we looked on the Internet. There was a ton of information on it.”

It normally costs restaurants to dispose of their used fryer oil. So they don`t mind giving it away for free. But some people don`t believe Scott and Anna actually put the stuff in their car.

“They try to persuade us that it is cooking oil, not for cars,” Scott said. “We explain we have come 1,000 miles and it does work. A lot of people don`t understand what we are talking about, but they figure we can take away the grease if we want it because it is just sitting in the dumpster. One man at a burger place in California swore at us. He thought we were trying to pull a practical joke on him. That was the only bad experience. Most everyone else has been very curious and friendly. The head chef at a restaurant in Eugene came out, and said: ‘I ought to get a diesel. I make this grease. I ought to run my car on it.'”

Anna says one drawback is the food odors can cause hunger pangs.

“We have smelled like onion rings, egg rolls and fish and chips,” Anna said. “It can make you hungry. But I`ll take food smells any day over diesel fumes.”

The couple feels there is exciting potential for biodiesel. For example, some farmers are using biodiesel made from their crops to fuel their farm vehicles. In those cases, there is no net increase in greenhouse gases. The amount of carbon dioxide given off by the tractor is equal to the amount taken in by the plants.

“That is the really radical idea, having a closed cycle of production,” Scott said.

When I think about all the used fryer grease from the casinos and other restaurants on the Coast, I imagine a whole fleet of veggie vehicles. This is a business just waiting for the right entrepreneur to pick up and filter the used fryer oil, mix it with diesel, and make it available to veggie vehicles.

“It is really win-win all around, except for oil companies,” Scott said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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