The Grease Trip

Getting more mileage on the munchies

| December 29, 2005

Meet Josh Marcus: writer, adventurer, and, recently, fry-oil connoisseur. In spring, Marcus converted an '84 diesel Benz to run on waste grease from restaurants and took it on the road in the Pacific Northwest -- an experience he recounts in The San Francisco Bay Guardian. That may sound like a daunting task for all but the most adept mechanics, but a bevy of catalogs and how-to guides has mushroomed all over the internet to walk the rest of us through the process.

Biofuel, once the closet obsession of ecologically conscious tech-heads, has transformed almost overnight into a cottage industry. DIY weekenders can now abandon plans to re-tile the kitchen and instead turn a diesel car into a machine that burns up calories, not the planet, thanks to online companies like PlantDrive. The site offers conversion kits, parts, consultation, and complete installation services for the easily frustrated. The home page quotes a rather famous expert in the biofuels field: 'The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.' Ralph Nader, 1999? Nope -- Rudolph Diesel, 1911. That's right -- the inventor of the diesel engine originally intended for them to run on veggie oil, not the petroleum-derived fuel currently used in trucks, cars, and buses.

PlantDrive and similar web-based companies like Greasecar and Journey to Forever sell conversion kits for cars to run on straight vegetable oil (SVO) rather than biodiesel, which is manufactured through a difficult, almost alchemical process involving toxic solvents. SVO engines are a little more straightforward -- one kit can set you back about a thousand clams (not the golden-fried variety), but the fuel is widely available and cheaper than gasoline (as low as 44 cents a gallon, according to Bulkoil.com. Though there is some controversy in the biodiesel vs. SVO debate in terms of engine performance and longevity, succinctly outlined on the Journey to Forever site, a big plus for SVO is that you can refuel almost anywhere. Which brings us back to Josh Marcus and his companions and their road trip through Oregon and Washington State. Along the way, they refueled with waste oil requisitioned from local restaurants -- encountering befuddled reactions from people who thought putting fryer grease into a car was crazy. (Of course, when you think about it, fueling cars with decayed dinosaur is even weirder...) Marcus' odyssey suggests that all it will take to grease the wheels of social change and convert our car culture to a sustainable one is more exposure to this emerging technology -- and for Marcus and other like-minded pioneers, that means taking a lot more road trips.

Go there >>Being There: Veggie Road Trip



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