July 11, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Driving coast to coast on deep fat fryers

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--You can always tell what the bus has eaten.

This summer, 12 students from New Hampshire's Dartmouth College are driving across the country in a renovated school bus, called The Big Green Bus, fueled almost entirely on waste vegetable oil culled from fast-food restaurants along the way. The emissions from the bus smell distinctly like the food which the oil cooked earlier, said team leader Andrew Zabel.

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Video: Bus that runs on veggie oil and solar power
Dartmouth project on wheels is coming to a town near you.

"If it's Mexican, you can tell. If it's Chinese, you know. They all have distinct scents," he said. "It is the flavor of the week. You can definitely smell a difference between diesel and grease."

On Monday, the bus made a stop at Cypress Semiconductor, owner of a solar company, SunPower, which donated a 215-watt solar panel that sits on the roof. The panel is there to run the flat-panel TV and the students' iPods and to help get the bus rolling at times. Cypress CEO T.J. Rodgers is a Dartmouth alumnus.

The experiment is a student-led project to bring greater awareness to alternative fuels. The bus is an old Blue Bird school bus that has been slightly modified to run on vegetable oil.

Converting a standard diesel engine to run on vegetable oil is actually relatively simple, Zabel said. First, the group had to install a 120-gallon tank to hold the vegetable oil. Second, vegetable oil, which is more viscous than standard diesel, needs to be heated up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit before it can be run through the engine. To get it to that temperature, the bus initially runs on standard diesel, until the engine fully heats the vegetable oil contained in the tank and tubes.

The SunPower solar panel on the roof also can be used to heat the vegetable oil. "It doesn't work well in cold climates," Zabel explained.

Big Green Bus

Finally, a filtration system is inserted to keep particulates from clogging the arteries of the engine.

The students started renovating the bus in April. The vehicle has run almost flawlessly for 4,000 miles. The bus gets 8 to 9 miles per gallon of vegetable oil, more than the 7 to 8 miles per gallon that the bus gets on standard diesel.

"We can't figure out why. Waste vegetable oil has about 5 percent less energy," Zabel said. The vehicle can go up to 65 miles an hour.

Vegetable oil releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere--but less than diesel. Plus, the cost is a lot less, Zabel said. The grease is free.

"We pull over at freeway exits with a plethora of fast-food restaurants," he said. "Any place with a fryolator."

Generally, the students fan out to check out the dumpsters at a rest stop. When one looks promising, they ask the management if they can take their grease.

"At first they are perplexed. The moment of truth comes when we stick the hose into the dumpster and the other end into the gas tank," Zabel said. "That's when they say, 'OK. You are for real.'"

Only occasionally do restaurants refuse. Many have contracts with fat renderers, which take the old grease and sell it to makers of shampoo and cosmetics. These companies refine the fat and resell it for around 90 cents a gallon. Even if the group had to buy their old vegetable oil, Zabel noted, 90 cents a gallon is about a third the cost of standard diesel.

The bus has cruised a good swath of America. Its first stop was the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. Then it was off to Columbus, Ohio; Cleveland; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago; Wisconsin; Seattle; and California. Next it will head to the L.A. area.

Last year, 14 Dartmouth seniors similarly converted a $2,000 bus bought on eBay, but it broke down in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. They had to call the dean of students, who wired them $5,000. This year's group of students paid $7,000 for the bus. (Most of the used Blue Birds are sold to Guatemala and Costa Rica, where they are used for public transportation.)

It may seem a little odd to see a "green" experiment coming from Dartmouth, a school that has at times been associated with the conservative political movement and the game "beer pong." But Zabel and SunPower President Dick Swanson said that the environmental movement and big business aren't necessarily at loggerheads.

Alternative energy is already a growing business. Demand for solar panels is growing by 40 percent a year, Swanson said. At the current rate, in 20 years the solar industry could manufacture enough panels to produce a terawatt of electricity a year.

In addition, alternative energies like vegetable oil don't require drilling expeditions and don't come from nations that can be difficult to deal with, Cypress' Rodgers noted.

"The bus shows that something like this is feasible. The next step is to see if it can be made economical" on a larger scale, he said.

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19 comments

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Why is this news?
I have a friend in Toronto that used an old diesel Mercedes to do exactly this sort of experiment THREE years ago.

This is far from a new idea. Hardly newsworthy.
Posted by tpetrilli (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Cross Country
With all due respect, it is not just the feasibility of using "Veggie Power" that is news worthy. But the Cross-Country effort to raise awareness.
Posted by YankeePoodle (785 comments )
Link Flag
Because...
Lots of engines have been converted to run on veggie oil. How many of them have been driven cross country? Also, with gas prices rising, alternative energy has sparked interest in the public... meaning anything that has to do with alternative energy is NEWS. Btw, not to demean your friend. I congradulate him on having foresight and fortitude to attempt converting an engine to run on veggie oil years ago. Had the public interested been more focused on alternative energy at the time, it would have been published in an article such as this one.
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
Link Flag
Its not really news
Biodiesel is, for all intents and purposes, vegatible oil. Per the article, they have to heat and filter it before sticking it into the engine.

This really isnt news. It's a neat project, for sure, but by no means a technical acheivement. Some very early vehicles (pre model-t), before gasoline, were powered by peanut oil! You can even buy home biodiesel kits which will let you power (newer) unmodified diesel vehicles.
Posted by (402 comments )
Link Flag
Congratulations
I'm sure we're all happy that you're so "in the loop". Fact is, this is a cool story, and after doing a quick check of the people around me... nobody knew this could be done so easily. So that makes it news.
Posted by ss_Whiplash (143 comments )
Link Flag
Interesting concept
perhaps 0.01% of diesel engines in use can be fuelled by vegetable oil. There is some synergy here: School busses can run on vegetable oil from canteen deep friers, so can hospitals, and commercial snack food makers.

At 90 cents a gallon (a third of the price of real diesel), there is some value in using Vegetable oil to power diesel engines.
Posted by Maccess (610 comments )
Reply Link Flag
vegetable oil or biodiesel
I know biodiesel can be made from vegetable oil, but this is the first time I've heard that vegetable oil can be used, without conversion into biodiesel, as a fuel. Can you imagine, buses running on vegetable oil, smelling like lunch!
Posted by thedreaming (573 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Biodiesel is vegetable oil!
And I don't know about the smell but I know of a biodiesel car (I'm sure it dosen't smell like lunch because it's an end consumer product), but I know that here in Rio a lot of gas stations already have 4 types of energy, (gasoline, ethanol, gas, biodiesel).
Biodiesel is something that will be great for buses and trucks, and I think is needed in other to make a competition with ethanol. Otherwise they sugar cane farmer will be the next ransomers.
Posted by ramonklown (17 comments )
Link Flag
only 100 years late
whats really funny is that ethanol or grain alcohol was ready to be used 100 years or so ago, it was much better than gasoline at the time, but it couldnt be controlled for profit, as people could grow it in their backyards, and so they made sure to put an end to that, and we as people are on the edge about to be pushed off a cliff into an neverending fall into despair, dupont and general motors, those people that stopped ethanol and used lead laced gasoline instead, they deserve a special award for artificial intellignce, far before A.I of our time, there minds were being run quite well by dreams of money, oh save us, oh save us, please save us, anyone save us, just do it quickly, as we dont have much time, haha, laugh out loud! cause soon the decibel meter in your personal containment device wont allow for such random activity and will shock you accordingly, all bless the emperor as he is divine
Posted by Jim_bob101 (25 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Phew...All in one breath
Jim Bob...IMHO you need to retake English 101.
What a contorted & rambling bunch of garbage.
Posted by cpocom (3 comments )
Link Flag
sadly
Sadly, if the motorist gained independence from all the theiving oil companies, the entire countries economy would implode overnite, and make Wall Street '29 look like a holiday picnic!

It ain't gonna happen, not if the remarried version of the seven little Standard Oil sisters have a say(they already own 1600 Pennsyvania Ave DC anyway(why else would they deliberately have a policy to close down the world's largest known reserves in Babylon!))

Vive La Choice!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Worth checking out
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1535852/20060707/story.jhtml" target="_newWindow">http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1535852/20060707/story.jhtml</a>

The students may not have invented a novel technology, but that doesn't seem to be the point. It's less about the particulars of running on vegetable oil and more about stirring up change.

With alternative energies finally making blips on the country's radar, their timing couldn't be better.
Posted by mmrv (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Air pollution machine!
Burning used vegetable oil must make for some noxious smoke! You can't tell me that the sludge that comes from fast food restaurant's fryers is clean burning. Of course, that doesn't matter to people on a feel-good mission. No matter what you burn (unless it's hydrogen) it's still gonna produce CO2!
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Carbon neutral much?
a. It's probably less noxious than diesel fumes.

II. This is carbon neutral. While yes, you are releasing carbon into the atmosphere, this is all part of the carbon cycle (a-la-circle of life). It's much, MUCH more eco-friendly than digging out carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years (petroleum) and releasing that into the atmosphere.

Think of it this way: if that plant matter had been left to rot in a field instead of burned, a large portion of it would have been converted into atmospheric carbon as it decomposed, and then re-absorbed by a subsequent generation of carbon-fixing organism (e.g. plants or algae). So the fact that they're burning it now doesn't really matter all that much, or at least a lot less than it would if they were burning petrol.

But what do I know?
Posted by jrw81 (2 comments )
Link Flag
Carbon neutrality
a. It's probably less noxious than diesel fumes.

II. This is carbon neutral. While yes, you are releasing carbon into the atmosphere, this is all part of the carbon cycle (a-la-circle of life). It's much, MUCH more eco-friendly than digging out carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years (petroleum) and releasing that into the atmosphere.

Think of it this way: if that plant matter had been left to rot in a field instead of burned, a large portion of it would have been converted into atmospheric carbon as it decomposed, and then re-absorbed by a subsequent generation of carbon-fixing organism (e.g. plants or algae).

So the fact that they're burning it now doesn't really matter all that much, or at least a lot less than it would if they were burning petrol.
Posted by jrw81 (2 comments )
Link Flag
How long will an engine last burning dirty veggie oil?
How long will an engine last burning dirty veggie oil? Gasoline engines burn cleanly, last well in excess of 100,000 miles and are the result of billions of dollars in R &#38; D money over decades. I'm sure it will take decades for biodiesel engines to be as good.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dirty Veg Oil ?
First of all, go out and do some reading on the subject. "Dirty" veg oil is never burned in diesel engines. It is de-watered and filtered to 5 micron or better before being used then heated(with various kits available)to 160F before being injected as fuel in the engine. Millions of miles have been run to date all over the country(cars,buses, tractor trailers)using these systems. It's here to stay and reliable
Posted by reminj1 (1 comment )
Link Flag
RE
You make it sound like they dump the oil straight from the fryer into the gas tank, which is incorrect. The oil is filtered and treated. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel_processor" target="_newWindow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel_processor</a>
The resulting glycerol can be sold to various industries that make use of it, cosmetics for example.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
Link Flag
 

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