Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Greasy Rider (copy)

Continuing this summer’s armchair travel theme, it is time for a road trip. This week I hopped in the car with Greg Melville and his college buddy, Iggy, for a cross country from Vermont to California as reported in Melville’s book Greasy Rider. As one may guess, this is not a typical vacation. We are traveling in a 1985 Mercedes 300TD wagon converted to burn vegetable oil, and we are proving to be the first “Greasecar” to traverse America.

Did you know that diesel engines were designed to run on vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels? When Rudolf Diesel designed his first engine he powered it with peanut oil. His idea was to maintain a farmer’s self-sufficient nature by allowing him to produce fuel from his own crop to run a flywheel engine. In the 1900s this might have been practical, but in the age of relatively cheap diesel fuel it is slightly easier to pump from a gas station than plant, fertilize, irrigate, spray insecticide, etc. a crop, for example cotton for the cottonseed oil.

Yes, today’s diesel engines can burn vegetable oil after installing a conversion kit. Unfortunately, Melville’s kit cost $8,000 and to most owners who already have a car note this added expense is too pricey. It is easy to justify the onetime expense when fuel is free though. With an additional $25, one can purchase a filter system and then pull to the back of any fast food restaurant and ask for the used deep-fry oil.

As you can guess, we got a little on the Kentucky Fried Chicken side of funky. At the first toll booth we were waved through as a possible gesture of support, or the fact that we reminded him it was time for lunch. Whatever the case, we made ourselves hungry, too as the smell permeated our clothes and hair after one day on the road.

There are two bad scenarios associated with free fry oil. One, we have to ask for permission to take the used oil. Two, filtering is a nasty project. We quickly got over the embarrassment of asking since many times the need outweighed the humiliation. Most often we gained permission only to find the oil dumpster empty or the oil full of chunks such as taco chips. Filtering can be a fast process if the oil is clean; otherwise, we purchased in bulk fuses that blew with the chunks. Out of frustration one night, Iggy ran to the nearby Wal-Mart and purchased Wesson.

Off route, readers will also visit attractions such as Al Gore’s not so green home in Tennessee, a geothermal heated and cooled Fort Knox in Kentucky, a “green” Wal-Mart in Texas, and a solar-powered Google in California. Sit back and enjoy the scenery in this eco-friendly read.