Put a Tiger Fruit in Your Tank? The Lowdown on Veggie-Powered Passenger Vehicles
A vehicle that runs on vegetables? It might sound unrealistic, but it’s here. Increasingly, people are replacing petroleum-based fuels with vegetable-based ones in their vehicles, hoping to travel in a more sustainable and environmentally responsible way.
The conversion cannot be done with gasoline-fueled vehicles, but it’s an option for those with diesel engines, and we’ve seen it most frequently in the pre-1987 Mercedes sedan.
Loren Lockman, founder and director of the Tanglewood Wellness Center, spoke at a Friends of Animals conference about the importance of treading lightly on the earth. Loren runs a recycled and extremely handsome two-door Mercedes Benz with vegetable oil recycled from restaurants.
And a project called The Big Green Bus (www.TheBigGreenBus.org) promotes vegetable-based fuels by touring U.S. schools in a schoolbus that’s “powered by veggies” as a real-life lesson on the power of vegetables. By reducing emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particulates and sulfates, the exhaust releases less greenhouse gas and less smog than that from regular gasoline.
And many have read about Joe Connor, a San Diego resident who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and drives a bright green Mercedes. Last spring and summer, Joe toured the United States, visiting a baseball game a day -- including senior leagues, as well as college, high school and Little League games -- to call attention to people’s dependence on petroleum and how the habit can be kicked. Joe’s 1984 car, fueled by used cooking oil from restaurants, gets about 25 miles per gallon on either diesel or waste oil.
Like Loren, Joe looks for fuel at restaurants, avoiding big chains with complex rules. Finding a local restaurant to supply the leftover oil is an excellent way to re-use a product that usually goes to waste. Asian restaurants usually fry in soy or canola oil, which are perfect for the purpose. The oil is filtered and poured into one of Joe’s two tanks. If necessary, the Mercedes can also be run on diesel fuel.
Joe isn’t sure if interest from the public will translate into action, although the tour attracted good media coverage and positive feedback, and the financial support of sponsors such as Louisville Slugger and Grease Car Vegetable Fuel Systems. He has since been contacted about doing a similar trip in Canada, this time driving to hockey rinks.
Biodiesel or Straight Vegetable Oil?
When the diesel engine was first designed, it ran on peanut oil, and was intended to free people from the steam and coal monopolies of the time. Unfortunately, one kind of fuel monopoly replaced another. But a growing number of drivers are liberating themselves from the system. You might have noticed the faint aroma of French fries as they drive by.
Whereas straight vegetable oil is 100% pure -- safe and biodegradable, with no petroleum in the mix at all -- biodiesel is a blend of a small amount of specially processed vegetable oil and regular petroleum diesel. The mixed fuel results in lower emissions than straight diesel, and is ready to use in any diesel engine without any modifications. Biodiesel is more common, increasingly available in commercial filling stations.
The proportion of the biodiesel to regular diesel in the mix is identified in the product’s name. For example, the common BD20 (or B20) blend is 20% biodiesel and 80% petro-diesel. Pure biodiesel is BD100 (or B100). Performance and efficiency of biodiesel is similar to that of diesel, but biodiesel tends to keep the engine cleaner.
What many people don’t know is that much of the currently available biodiesel for diesel engines uses animal fat. Also note that biodiesel and t he oils that go into its production are far cheaper when they come from Asia, South America or Africa, so most biodiesel in Europe and North America is not a local product; its importation means a great deal of energy use.
The Road to Sustainability?
In the long term, biofuels shouldn’t be considered a cure-all. You might have hear pure vegetable oil called ‘carbon neutral’ -- plants absorb carbon, they’re burned as fuel, then re-absorbed back by the next generation of plants -- but this burning still releases carbon and other materials. And much more farming would have to occur in order to produce vegetable oils for fuel, which translates into further loss of habitat for other animals. Palm oil, touted as a key biofuel, is taken from the forests at the expense of life and limb of orang-utans and many other animals of the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests. Of those tremendous fires of Borneo in 1998, three-quarters were ignited by people clearing land for palm oil. Clearing forests is a cause of global warming and desertification; and i n regions where people are struggling to meet their basic food needs, edible crops such as corn may be grown to make fuel for export instead of food for local people. In central and South America, this conflict is already obvious.
This is why using leftover vegetable oil is the best way to take advantage of the biofuel option, as it involves re-using a waste product, not creating new demand.
In the future, we should focus on and promote technologies that rely on low-impact sources of energy, particular solar power; and probably the best move of all is to use and advance train services whenever we can. On this point, most drivers of vegetable-powered engines will strongly agree.
Lee Hall contributed to this report.
- “Vegetable Oil Helps Fuel Baseball Road Trip” – Bangor ( Maine) Daily News (15 Aug. 2006).
- Fred Pearce, Senior Environment Reporter, writing on the New Scientist weblog (3 July 2007).