Turning grease into fuel
Vail CO, Colorado
CARBONDALE ” Have you ever considered converting your car to run on used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants?
At first blush, the idea sounds like a moronic machination by the likes of Homer Simpson. But last April, Brian Flynn of Carbondale did exactly that to his diesel truck, a 2002 Ford F250.
It was partly an attempt to be more environmentally friendly. And it likely will save Flynn a little money. But really, it was the wild bears of the Roaring Fork Valley that greased the wheels and inadvertently pushed Flynn to make the change.
Anyone who’s ever taken out the trash in Aspen knows that bears can be a real nuisance, so much so that the city has regulations about bear-proofing trash containers. Restaurants that dispose of used vegetable oil are supposed to follow similar rules. They generally contract with a company that provides a container, which the restaurant fills with used oil and leaves out with the trash for the company to collect.
About five years ago, Flynn learned that many existing companies weren’t providing bear-proof containers for the used oil, which meant easy pickings (lickings?) for the urban Ursidae.
“Bears would just tip them over ” you know how they do with the trash Dumpsters,” Flynn said. “It’s the same thing, but tastier and fattier.”
So Flynn, an open space and special projects manager with Aspen’s parks department, started his own company, All Valley Resource, LLC, to collect the used oil.
At the time, Flynn was already familiar with the alternative fuel biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oil. The vegetable oil first has to be processed so it can run in regular diesel engines.
But unlike regular diesel cars, trucks and buses that run on the special fuel, Flynn’s truck runs on straight vegetable oil. Instead of converting the oil to run in the truck, Flynn converted the truck to run on the oil.
He spent a little more than $2,000 to modify his truck, which was not as difficult as it might seem. He just got on the Internet and went to http://www.greasecar.com, where he found conversion kits for sale. The hard part was finding someone to install it, he said. Flynn bought the kit in 2005, but it took a year for him to find a mechanic he trusted to do the work.
“It’s the first time anyone ever saw this,” he said. “It would take more than just changing a tire.”
He ultimately settled on Kevin Dougherty, who installed what amounts to a secondary fuel tank for the vegetable oil. Now the truck functions like a hybrid, in which Flynn can switch between the vegetable oil tank and the diesel tank. He starts and stops using diesel but otherwise runs the truck on the oil.
The day after having the engine converted for the new fuel, Flynn hopped in the truck with family and friends and took it to California on an inaugural run.
It was a little nerve-racking ” Flynn feared the truck might “shoot a french fry” and be finished ” but the trip was a success. Flynn filled the diesel tank once before leaving on the trip and drove all the way to California and back before having to fill it again.
Of course, he also had to haul 200 gallons of vegetable oil with him ” oil he’d spent a month filtering.
That’s the other part of the formula. You can’t just pour dirty vegetable oil into the secondary tank. The used oil goes through several filtering stages, alternating with steps to dewater the oil, before it’s clean enough for the engine.
“The last thing you want to do is stick bad fuel in an expensive car,” Flynn said.
The multistep filtering process was much harder than the point-and-click purchasing process for the converter, he added.
But now that he’s mastered the hard part, other valley residents who are interested in making the change can benefit from his efforts. Flynn only filters about 10 percent of the oil he collects to run his truck. He sends about 80 percent of the oil he collects to a man in Paonia, who uses it to make biodiesel, and the roughly 10 percent that remains is bad oil (“too much calamari,” he says) and is composted. The 80 percent that goes to Paonia is a healthy reserve to filter for anyone else who wants to convert a car to run on vegetable oil.
Flynn is happy to filter more oil (again stressing that you don’t want to put just any vegetable oil in a car that’s undergone the conversion), but he says he’s definitely not in it to get rich.
“There’s no money to be made in the product as a fuel,” he said. “It was an opportunity to make use of another product to close the loop as far as recycling.”
Running his truck on vegetable oil does decrease his own fuel costs, though. Flynn used to be able to drive about 300 miles every time he filled his diesel tank. Now, with the added fuel source, he can go about 1,000 miles before paying to refuel. He expects to save about $1,800 a year at current gas prices, allowing him to recoup the cost of the converter and installation by mid-summer.
If you’re still afraid of making similar changes to your own diesel engine, consider this: Rudolf Diesel, the German engineer and inventor for whom the diesel engine is named, created his engine to run on peanut oil. His goal more than 100 years ago was not unlike the goal of modern-day environmentalists: resource conservation.
The steam engines that provided power in Diesel’s day were extremely inefficient, and Diesel set out to build an engine that both improved fuel efficiency and allowed farmers to grow their own fuel. Some reports even suggest Diesel wanted common people and small companies to be able to make their own fuel to compete with large companies that threatened to monopolize fuel production.
Today, most diesel engines can run on biodiesel without alteration (fuel lines on older cars might need to be checked), and the idea of converting engines to run on straight vegetable oil has been resurrected by those who aren’t afraid to make after-factory alterations to their cars.
Flynn said it could still be some time before the nation’s infrastructure supports a wholesale shift to vegetable-based fuels, however. He notes with irony that the semi trucks that haul biodiesel could be running on petroleum-based fuel.
According to Flynn, some of the newer diesel cars run efficiently enough on biodiesel (available at the Catherine Store on Highway 82 near Carbondale) that owners may not want to make changes. But the diehard environmentalists who want to leave petroleum in the dust by converting their cars to run on straight vegetable oil can make tracks to Flynn for the filtered oil.