Around: The Story of the Veggie Van
By Joshua Tickell
It was an idyllic August morning in Southern Germany when I first saw
a farmer pour vegetable oil into his tractor. I watched as Florian
lifted the heavy jug of yellow liquid, balanced its lip on the tractors
filler hose, and then poured the vegetable oil directly into the fuel
tank. The sun was still below the horizon and the morning dew seemed
iridescent in the half-light. Still sleepy, I wondered if I was dreaming
or if Florian was crazy.
A Bit of History
When Rudolf Diesel unveiled the Diesel engine at the 1900 Worlds
Fair in Paris, he shocked reputable scientists and inventors by pouring
peanut oil into it. It is not surprising that this brilliant inventor
designed the Diesel engine to run on vegetable oil considering that
he spent his childhood in the agricultural provinces of France and
He grew up around farmers and knew their troubles and needs.
Throughout his career, Dr. Diesel promoted the benefits of agricultural
fuel. In a speech given at a technical institute in Germany in 1911
he said, The Diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and
would help considerably in the development of agriculture and the countries
which use it. Two years later, Diesel was on a trip across
the English Channel when he disappeared. A few days later, his body
found afloat in the sea. The English newspapers suggested that Dr.
Rudolf Diesel was assassinated by foreign agents.
Reinventing Diesels Vision
After Diesels death, the idea of fueling engines with vegetable
oil was quickly and quietly swept under the rug. His original designs
were modified and Diesel engines were made to run on the cheapest,
abundant fuel available: petroleum.
It was not until the oil crisis of the 1970s that the idea of using
vegetable oil as an engine fuel was again given serious thought. Universities
in the U.S. and Europe developed methods for using vegetable oil as
a fuel for modern-day Diesel engines.
Vegetable oil is too thick to use directly in modern Diesel engine
fuel injection systems. Nevertheless, researchers discovered three
of using vegetable oil to fuel a Diesel engine: 1) mix the vegetable
oil with a lighter fuel such as kerosene; 2) heat the vegetable oil
before it enters the fuel injection system; and 3) chemically crack the
vegetable oil molecule to make it smaller. Since the chemical process
used to crack the vegetable oil is simple, reliable, and inexpensive,
it became the method of choice.
European researchers perfected the chemical process to make biodiesel
fuel from vegetable oil. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil, alcohol,
and a catalyst through a process called transesterification. Biodiesel
is easy to make, can be used in any Diesel engine, and drastically reduces
tailpipe emissions. It can be made from any vegetable oil including
soy, canola, sunflower, hemp, coconut, and even used cooking oils or
animal fat. Biodiesel fuel is very lubricating, which makes it better
for Diesel engines than Diesel fuel. The best part about biodiesel is
that it requires absolutely no engine modifications; you just pour it
into the fuel tank. It can even be mixed with regular petroleum Diesel
The Veggie Van is Born
During my senior year in college, I co-wrote a thesis on energy and
the environment with my friend, Kaia Roman. Kaia and I often talked
about finding a place in the country and living off solar power.
we researched the state of our planet, our dreams began to fade.
We learned that global warming, urban sprawl, smog, water pollution,
the need for ever more energy are no longer localized problems. I
began to believe that unless people change their energy use and consumption
patterns, my childrens Earth will be but a shadow of the planet
we now call home.
I decided to do something radical to bring peoples attention
to one solution to an environmental problem. The problem we focused
was petroleum use. The solution I wanted to show was vegetable oil.
My goal was to take a Winnebago, paint it with a field of sunflowers,
drive it across the country, and fuel it with vegetable oil. Since
vegetable oil from the supermarket is expensive, I would run the
motor home on used cooking oil from fast food restaurants. With Kaias
help, I would turn the fast food restaurants of America into a network
of low-cost gas stations. No sooner had I thought of it than the
Van was born.
I found the Veggie Van in a used car lot in my home state of Louisiana.
It was an unimpressive, white, 1986 Winnebago LeSharo, with a small,
two-liter Diesel engine that ran on 25 miles per gallon.
The Green Grease Machine
Kaia and I approached almost every professor with the Veggie Van idea.
Finally, a chemistry professor and a math professor agreed to help us.
From there on, support for the Veggie Van project snowballed. The college
gave me a garage to work in. Students volunteered to help at all hours
of the day and night.
Kaia and I made our first batch of biodiesel in a test tube. Our
second batch was made in a blender. Soon, we upgraded to a five gallon
then to a 15 gallon pot. By this time, my 1982 Volkswagen Jetta, Greasy
Gretta, was running on biodiesel made from used vegetable oil
we had retrieved from the college cafeteria.
When we were confident making biodiesel on a small scale, I designed
a crude processor that could be mounted onto a trailer which the Veggie
Van could tow. My friends and I scavenged boat yards, junk yards, and
back yards to find parts for the processor. We found a military steam
kettle, a tug boat filter, a champion juicer, an ancient Diesel engine
from a sailboat, some scrap metal and some plumbing parts. With these
parts, we made a biodiesel processor that we called
The Green Grease Machine.
The Veggie Van USA Tour
With the help of students and community volunteers, we transformed
a Winnebago into a rolling recycling exhibit. Art students painted
Gogh-esque field of sunflowers around the Veggie Vans sides.
I installed a 200-watt solar power system and we attached the Green
Machine. The only thing we changed about the engine of the Winnebago
was the fuel we poured into it. When we started using biodiesel,
exhaust of the Veggie Van changed from a cloud of black, smelly smoke
to a clean, French fry-scented puff of air.
We talked to reporters, environmental organizations, music festival
managers, and schoolteachers as we scheduled the events of the tour
and planned our route. We set off with the Veggie Van, the Green Grease
Machine, and an almost endless supply of grease. The Veggie Van traversed
more than 10,000 miles of American highways. There was no end to the
amount of used cooking oil available to us. In fact, our greasy voyage
did not even make a dent in the three billion gallons of used vegetable
oil produced annually in the U.S.
Life on the American road was a non-stop, colorful adventure. The
first question people always asked us was Does it really run on vegetable
oil? One whiff of the exhaust was enough to convince most skeptics
because it does, believe it or not, smell like French fries. During
the tour, the Veggie Van was featured on the Today Show, Dateline,
The Discovery Channel and many other news broadcasts. The Associated
Press circulated an article about the Veggie Van to newspapers across
the country. The Veggie Van Web site logged over half a million hits
in two months.
Power to the People
That summer, Kaia and I talked with farmers who want to run their equipment
on oil from the crops that they grow. We found that urban dwellers want
public transport without the asphyxiating pollution. We met with CEOs,
environmental organizations, and students of all ages who want to study
clean technologies. We talked a little and we listened a lot. We heard
the voices of a proud, caring people who love their country, their land
and their air. They want to use clean fuels in their cars and renewable
energies in their homes.
By the time the Veggie Van USA Tour ended, it was obvious to me that
people care about the environment and they are ready to work to make
a difference. We had received over a thousand e-mails of support and
encouragement for the van. Many people wanted to make biodiesel fuel
themselves. We compiled file cabinets full of biodiesel research along
with our own experience and wrote a book, From the Fryer to the Fuel
Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel.
As world petroleum reserves continue to decline and energy becomes
more expensive, I believe my once radical dream of living
in a house that relies on renewable energy and driving a car that
on a renewable fuel will become merely a part of everyday life.
Copyright © 2000 Tickell Energy Consulting, Inc. This article
is reprinted with kind permission from the author. Send comments
Visit www.veggievan.org to learn