Veggie car drivers can expect the same power and fuel economy as when using diesel fuel, which is up to 40 percent better than gasoline, according to the Diesel Technology Forum.

Advocates add that vegetable oil is better for a car because it lubricates the fuel injection system, thus extending the life of the engine. In addition, emissions are reduced because vegetable oil lacks many of the pollutants associated with burning fossil fuels, advocates say.

“Studies we’ve done, across the board, show that vegetable oil is as clean or cleaner than biodiesel and much cleaner than diesel fuel,” said Justin Carven, founder of Greasecar, which sells conversion kits out of Florence, Mass.

Biodiesel is a cleaner burning fuel than diesel and can be made from such renewable energy sources as vegetable oil. Biodiesel can be used in its pure form or blended with diesel, though it costs more than straight diesel. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of biodiesel, but it hasn’t given the thumbs up to veggie oil. That doesn’t surprise Rich Niesenbaum, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Muhlenberg College.

“They have to break out of the mindset of fossil fuel and think creatively,” he said. “I have yet to see creative energy use promoted by government since [Jimmy] Carter.”

The EPA isn’t the only entity critical of burning recycled vegetable oil in automobiles.

Vegetable oil has different qualities just like gasoline has different grades. Because of that, what type of oil people power their cars with is a big concern, said Schaeffer of the Diesel Technology Forum.

“For users, it’s kind of a crapshoot,” he said. “There’s a big difference between getting [high quality] soybean oil compared to [lower grade] McDonald’s. [Poor quality oil] can cause problems with fuel injectors and performance with the vehicle – affecting pickup and whether it idles correctly.”

State Farm Insurance would take modified vehicles on a case by case basis to determine whether alterations would affect insurance rates, said spokeswoman Sue Sampson.

Volkswagen, which produces six diesel models in America, said that converting to and using veggie oil could void the power train warranty – if it hasn’t already expired, according to David Hathaway, service manager at Faulkner-Ciocca Volkswagen.

“The problem is, there’s no way we would know what the long-term effect would be on the pump and equipment,” added Tony Viglianti, the dealership’s assistant service manager. “I wouldn’t want to be the guinea pig.”

How a veggie car cooks

The car is started using either diesel or biodiesel—a renewable energy source that burns cleaner than diesel—which is stored in the car’s original fuel tank.

Radiator fluid transfers heat from the engine to the vegetable oil, which is kept in a second fuel tank installed in the car. Heat reduces the oil’s viscosity—or thickness—so it won’t clog the engine.

When the engine is warm, the driver flicks a switch on the dashboard, causing the car to run on the heated vegetable oil.

About five to 10 minutes before shutting off the engine, the driver switches back to diesel to purge the vegetable oil from the fuel system, so that it is ready for the next start-up.

Sources: www.greasecar.com, www.greasel.com, David Rosenstraus.

Veggie-modified vehicles require no additional maintenance other than to clean or replace the filter, according to Rosenstraus. All one has to do is find the fuel.

Many restaurants are more than happy to give away their waste vegetable oil. It sure beats the alternative of paying for disposal.

Asian food restaurants and bar and grills tend to use better quality oil—pure canola or soy, which is easier to filter—than fast food restaurants, according to Greasecar. Rosenstraus gets his oil from nearby Hunan Springs.

General Manager Jay Ho said that when a scruffy looking Rosenstraus—who counts among his T-shirts one that reads, “Bikes not bombs”—first approached him asking for 15 gallons of vegetable oil per week, “I thought he was crazy. I thought he was going to use it for a prank.”

When Ho realized Rosenstraus’ request was for real, “I thought he was a genius, like a rocket scientist.” Rosenstraus hauls the oil to his basement, where he filters out the noodles and other particles through sacks made of cotton-like material. Then it gets poured into a spare fuel tank stored in the trunk of his Jetta.

Some people who prefer convenience over cost have taken the extra step of forming co-ops to buy the oil, said Greasecar’s Carven, who sells used oil in his area for 90 cents a gallon. Others have formed companies that collect waste oil in bulk and then sell it.

Some models show that in 20 years, there won’t be enough fossil fuel to meet the world’s consumption needs, said Niesenbaum, the Muhlenberg College biology professor.

“The solutions are out there,” said Niesenbaum, who also is a member of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. “We can either bury our heads in the sand, so that fuel prices will go up and we’ll go to war more for it—along with creating more global warming, acid rain and air pollution. Or we can think about alternative technology and then change our habits.”

One car at a time.

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