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December 2001/January 2002
Fueling 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 tractor’s 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 World’s 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 Germany. 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 was found afloat in the sea. The English newspapers suggested that Dr. Rudolf Diesel was assassinated by foreign agents.

Reinventing Diesel’s Vision
After Diesel’s 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, most 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 methods 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 fuel.

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. As we researched the state of our planet, our dreams began to fade. We learned that global warming, urban sprawl, smog, water pollution, and 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 children’s Earth will be but a shadow of the planet we now call home.

I decided to do something radical to bring people’s attention to one solution to an environmental problem. The problem we focused on 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 new vegetable oil from the supermarket is expensive, I would run the motor home on used cooking oil from fast food restaurants. With Kaia’s 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 Veggie 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 bucket, 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 a Van Gogh-esque field of sunflowers around the Veggie Van’s sides. I installed a 200-watt solar power system and we attached the Green Grease Machine. The only thing we changed about the engine of the Winnebago was the fuel we poured into it. When we started using biodiesel, the 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, CNN, 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 runs 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 and questions to: Visit to learn more.


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