Eco-conscious alum
powers car with
vegetable oil

By Jeff Gelman ’95

Like many Americans, David Rosenstraus ’03 cringed at soaring fuel prices each time he had to fill up at the pump. The 23-year-old Lower Macungie resident wished there were a way to drive for free, and at the same time, decrease both his car’s environmentally-damaging emissions and America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Then he heard about such an alternative, one that seems to be catching on with motorists across the country and allows them to blow past the gas stations—on used vegetable oil.

That’s right. The oil that fast food and Chinese restaurants fry their food in, then pay to have hauled away, can actually be used to power your diesel car. It’s eco-friendly, helps lessen the country’s reliance on the Middle East, and perhaps best of all: It doesn’t cost anything.


photo: Don Fisher/The Morning Call Inc., Copyright 2004

“It’s the only true environmentally friendly way to drive these days besides hydrogen and hybrids,” he said recently. “You’re using a resource that’s renewable and is being thrown out.

“And it smells good,” he added. That’s because exhaust fumes take on the scent of egg rolls or French fries or whatever food in which the vegetable oil was cooked. “The drawback,” he said, “is it makes you hungry.”

But before you rush out and buy a diesel Volkswagen or Ford and transform it into a veggie-mobile, know this: Critics not only wave off the use of waste vegetable oil as an unproven fad that will eventually settle into a niche market, they also warn that it could hike insurance rates, void manufacturers’ warranties and provide inconsistent performance in vehicles.

“We don’t hold a lot of faith in filling up at the hamburger stand,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a pro-diesel advocacy group.

That hasn’t stopped several companies from offering conversion kits on the Internet for $500 and up—some mechanical ability required. Nor has it discouraged roughly 3,400 people from altering their vehicles since the idea began about five years ago, as estimated by Charles Anderson, president of Missouri-based Greasel.

Sales for Greasel’s kits, which have numbered about 2,500 thus far, have doubled in the last six months, Anderson said. He attributed the recent spike to high fuel costs and the fact that more people are hearing that the option exists.

“The next couple months, we’ll probably double sales figures again.” Anderson said by cell phone as he and a co-worker cooked at 60 mph in a veggie-burning Ford Excursion. They were on their way to Little Rock, Ark., to learn more about a fuel injection pump that Anderson said would allow them to build a better conversion system. “We just pass by all the gas stations and keep on smiling,” he said.

Drivers of gas-powered engines itching to get in on the action are out of luck. Waste vegetable oil isn’t volatile enough to ignite via the spark plugs found in a gasoline internal combustion engine, according to Greasel.

Although diesel only makes up a fraction of this country’s automotive market, that still accounts for roughly half a million such vehicles on the road, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Diesel, which has grown cleaner and more efficient in the last decade, also is used to power trucks, buses, locomotives and generators.

That makes for a lot more potential grease cars—and other machinery, too.

Yet most of Greasel’s customers – 75 percent—don’t own a diesel vehicle when they first inquire about buying a conversion kit.

“It’s something people get impassioned about,” Anderson said. “They get [excited about owning a vehicle that runs on free fuel] and can’t shake it.”

And with local diesel prices up nearly 30 cents a gallon from last year – to $1.81, according to the American Automobile Association – driving for free is growing more attractive every day. Especially when the cost of a kit can be made up after less than a year of motoring on vegetable oil.

Installing the system is not for the mechanically clueless, Rosenstraus said, though he managed to teach himself. “A year ago, I didn’t know anything about cars besides turning the key,” he admitted.

Since then, he has converted four vehicles, including his VW Jetta – 10,000 miles on vegetable oil and still going strong. In fact, Rosenstraus now can make the necessary modifications without buying a kit. For those who want their own, but can’t tell the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, take heart: Rosenstraus’ next project is to start “Fossil Free Fuels,” a business that would convert people’s cars to run on vegetable oil.

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