The Great American VeggieVan Adventure
Powered by vegetable oil, the Veggie Van took us 10,000 miles across the United States.
The van visited 20 major cities and 25 states where people smelled the clean, French fry-like exhaust. Over 40 million people saw the multicolored Veggie Van drive across their television screens. Thousands of people attended presentations about the van, and hundreds of thousands more read about the van in their local newspapers. More than half a million people visited the Veggie Van website at www.veggievan.org . What began as a college project culminated during the summer of 1997 in a massive public awareness campaign. We knew that we had reached people from almost every walk of life when a homeless person begging on the street shouted to us at a stoplight "Hey, isn't that the van that runs on that used restaurant oil?" We nodded in response and as we drove away the man shouted, "That's incredible, good luck!"
Luck had once taken us to a traditional farm in picturesque southern Germany where we had seen vehicles fueled by vegetable oil. While studying agriculture and living on this farm, we noticed that the farmers were continuously hauling tanks full of yellow liquid. The farmers told us, "This is fuel comes from the canola plants which grow on our farm and on Jorg's farm up the road. We put it in the diesels and they smell good". To our amazement, the farmers then poured the yellow liquid into their car and tractor which then emitted a pleasant smelling exhaust.
More than 100 years ago, a brilliant inventor named Rudolph Diesel designed the diesel engine to run on vegetable oil. However, modern diesel engines require less viscous, chemically altered vegetable oil, or "biodiesel". Vegetable oil is the basic ingredient of biodiesel, a biodegradable, nontoxic fuel that works in any unmodified diesel engine. Not only does biodiesel require zero modifications to the engine, but this fuel works either by itself or blended with petroleum diesel! The process of converting vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel is called "transesterification" and is far less complex than it sounds.
The chemicals needed to make biodiesel are cheap and easy to find. Any vegetable oil, such as used restaurant oil, methanol, a clear alcohol used as racing fuel, and lye, a white powder-like substance used as drain cleaner are the basic components. During the conversion process, the ingredients are heated and mixed, and biodiesel and glycerin are created. The glycerin can be used to make soap or any one of thousands of other products. Biodiesel fuel ranges in color from light yellow to dark brown. No matter what the color, when it is used directly in an unmodified Diesel engine it can burn up to 75% cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel. Since biodiesel can be made from used cooking oil, we decided that it was time for us to take this idea on the road.
Enamored with the idea of transforming the fast food restaurant fryers of America into a network of low-cost gas stations, we decided to build a portable fuel processor, buy a motor home with a diesel engine, and travel across the country. Sitting on a local used car lot was a 1986 Winnebago LeSharo with a 2.1 liter Renault diesel engine that would soon become the "Veggie Van." The small, white van had the perfect engine and it got 25 miles to the gallon. Two purple, gleaming solar (photovoltaic) panels soon adorned its roof line. The panels allowed us to stay "off the grid" because they powered the van's refrigerator, lights, computer, power tools, and video equipment. Fueled by soft drinks and pizza, a rag-tag group of volunteer art students painted sunflowers and earth symbols on the van. The Van Gogh-esque graphics and some well placed lettering told any onlooker that this Veggie Van was "Powered by Vegetable Oil", got "1,300 miles per acre" and was on the "Veggie Van USA Tour." The exterior of the van hinted of the mechanical magic occurring inside the engine, which remained totally unmodified.
The "Green Grease Machine" was created when we mixed salvaged parts from scrap- yards and boat marinas and hardware store plumbing supplies with our blood, sweat and used cooking oil. This trailer-mounted work of art makes clean-burning biodiesel out of used restaurant vegetable oil. First, an old Champion juicer motor sucks vegetable oil from a restaurant fryer, then a converted tug boat fuel filter filters the French fries and other bits of food out of the oil, and lastly the oil moves into a converted 1976 military steam kettle where an outboard boat motor swirls the ingredients together!
Some very interesting experiments with vegetable oil and fryer grease gave way to our first large batch of biodiesel fuel. Covered in grease, we watched as the dark fuel was poured into a secondary tank of our test vehicle, a diesel VW. As soon as the tank's valve was opened, the fuel began to gurgle, the engine changed pitch, and the air was filled with the odor of super- fried vegetable oil. Our experimental fuel actually worked!
Phone calls and e-mails poured in from around the country as we planned the Veggie Van USA Tour. We talked to reporters, environmental organizations, music festival managers, and school teachers as we scheduled the events of the tour and planned our route. The demand to see the Veggie Van was so great and the scheduled events were so many, that the trip itinerary would leave us little time to make fuel. But we had the Green Grease Machine and an almost endless supply of grease. Unfretted and excited, we began the 1997 Veggie Van USA Tour.
"Powered by vegetable oil, the Veggie Van took us 10,000 miles..."
(photo: The Tickells)
We ran the Veggie Van on almost 100% biodiesel fuel for 10,000 miles from coast to coast. The Veggie Van towed the Green Grease Machine in a trailer and together they weighed almost 5 tons! The biodiesel fuel gave at least a 10% power gain over petroleum diesel and we felt every bit of it on the mountains.
Life on the American road in the Veggie Van was a non-stop, colorful adventure. At least one out of every four people who passed us on the highway waved, honked, or gave us a big smile. I often turned my head to absentmindedly look at a passing vehicle only to see a camera flash from the passenger's side. In rest areas and parking lots, crowds of people gathered around the van, reading its messages, taking pictures of family members next to it, and including it in their summer vacation home movies. The first question people asked us was, "Does it really run on vegetable oil?". One whiff of the exhaust was enough to convince most skeptics, because it does, believe it or not, smell like french fries.
That summer, we talked with farmers who want to run their equipment on oil from the crops that they grow. We found that urban dwellers want public transport without the asphyxiating pollution. We met with CEO's, environmental organizations, people of all ages and backgrounds. We talked to "snowbirds" in campgrounds, truckers in truck stops, young men in fast red cars in traffic jams. We talked to students of all ages who want to study clean technologies. We talked a little and we listened a lot. We heard the voices of a proud, caring people who still love their country, their land, and their air. They want to use clean fuels in their cars and renewable energies in their homes.
On September 6, when the Veggie Van USA Tour officially ended at the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, CA, the Veggie Van had been in 25 states, 20 major cities, and countless small towns. It was on the Today Show, Dateline NBC, Nightshift, as well as many other major news broadcasts across the country.
The Associated Press picked up an article in New Orleans which was circulated to many newspapers around the country. Wherever we arrived people said they just read about us in the paper. The Veggie Van website logged over half a million hits that summer and continues to receive hundreds of visits a day. It was featured in Yahoo's weekly picks and in Internet Life. In short, the media coverage and public interest in this project have been astonishing.
The 1997 Veggie Van USA Tour gave us proof that there are better ways to run cars and ultimately better ways to run our society. Every time we turned grease into clean fuel, we proved that we can create clean energy resources using our current technology. Our goal is and will remain empowerment of ourselves and others through education and information. Our first book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, is now available through our website. This book is aimed at do-it-yourselfers, students, teachers, chemistry classes, and people with an interest in exploring the possibility of making biodiesel from fryer oil.
Plans for the next amazing voyage to demonstrate renewable energy are already underway. Due to the overwhelming and unceasing flow of e-mails, phone calls, and interested people, our voyage will continue...