Where We Come From, Where We’re Going

-By Andrew Whalen. Photos by Elliot Whalen

Travel has never been easier than for us 21st century kids, or more complicated. Sometime between Starbucks’ assault on the Forbidden City (and let’s not forget the reach of Micky D’s, especially since they’ve reached Cuzco) and the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the institution of globe-trotting revealed its true nature as a double-edged sword. While I still believe the cross-cultural understanding fostered by global travel outweighs its negatives, we can no longer ignore that travel by airplane, bus, train, and car is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and that globalization gone wrong can homogenize and crowd out the very far-flung cultures we go to such lengths to see. Of course, being the conscientious young folk we are, we decided our grand South American adventure must have the daintiest footprint possible. On the cultural front, we figured that with some pre-trip research, constant vigilance against the inner jackass, and a little charm, we’d come out in the black. Emissions proved a more adept adversary, but the match has been an excellent teacher. Thus began our ongoing education in alternative energy.

Researching alternatives to a fossil-fuel powered road trip, we quickly ruled out electrical cars. We figured we didn’t have the greenbacks to pay for one and that recharging would be difficult in a region of underdeveloped national electrical grids. Meanwhile, Drew had heard about a guy who drove around the world using vegetable and animal oils and anything he could get his hands on for fuel, including the fat of a pig he was forced to boil down while stranded in some far flung mountain village where he couldn’t come up with anything else. Ever the suckers for adventure and pigs, the rest of us were sold on biofuel almost immediately. It couldn’t be just any biofuel, we decided. It had to come from used vegetable oil or nothing at all.  Why used vegetable oil? Well, watching the food vs. fuel debate play out during the 2008 global food price spike, and how the race for biofuels had unintended consequences down here in the Amazon, we decided the whole growing your fuel thing was too messy – not to mention impractical for on-the-move vagabonds.

Once we knew our car would run on used vegetable oil, our only problem was that we had no idea how to run our car on used vegetable oil. Thankfully Al Gore built the oracle, and upon consulting it we discovered an entire community of like-minded individuals dedicated to doing just such a thing. The oracle told Drew of a biofuel guru in the Bay Area that went by the name of Girl Mark and sent us out to scour the crunchiest corners of Berkeley, California to find her. Find her we did not, but at the Biofuel Oasis co-op fueling station, we found the next best thing: Maria “Mark” Alovert’s Biodiesel Homebrew Guide Edition 10.5: “Everything you need to know to make quality alternative diesel fuel out of waste restaurant fryer oil.”

While Mark’s guide would become our biofuel bible, Biofuel Oasis also gave us a first-hand view of how biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil could work on a large scale. As we examined the gas station’s charming biofuel book and souvenir shop, we watched card-carrying members of the station’s collective come and go, filling their tanks with biodiesel produced from used vegetable oil collected at restaurants all around the city.

As the friendly fueling station attendees explained, and we later researched at length in our new bible, we had two options for running our car on used oil. The first is home-brewing our own biodiesel in a process called transesterification. Though it sounds scary and torturous, it’s relatively straightforward. The equation goes something like this: react methanol with used vegetable oil, using sodium hydroxide or lye as a catalyst, and you get biodiesel and a few byproducts including glycerol and household soap. For a walk through of the process courtesy of Kenyi García Cervantes, head chemist at Reth Córdova del Carpio’s EPA, see the short film we’ve posted above. We briefly considered finding a way to do the chemical reaction on the fly, perhaps involving a washing machine mounted on a bicycle as a rustic, transportable reactor to mix veggie oil and methoxide (another Drew special courtesy of “some guy at MIT” who ignored our emails). We dropped the idea pretty quick once we had a close look at the time-consuming process and decided it didn’t jive with our impatient itinerary. It was a good thing too, as we were later told that methanol can be hard to come by in these parts.

The second option was to install a straight vegetable oil conversion system, or SVO system, in our car and run it on unmodified used vegetable oil. The ease of collecting oil from restaurants and dumping it straight into a second tank installed in our car was very appealing for a long road trip, so we started researching companies that manufacture the kits, and looking into how the hell we were going to get one of them down to Lima and installed in a car. Thankfully, while the oracle had sent Drew and me to Berkeley, it had firmly deposited Sr. Kote in a far corner of the worldwide web dedicated entirely to all things Volkswagon. There, by a stroke of good fortune, young Miguelcito found the car we were all born to drive: a campervan equipped with a straight vegetable oil system installed by Plantdrive in British Colombia, beds to sleep four, a minifridge, and a stove, on its way to Santiago, Chile. A jolly Canadian-American couple drove her down from the Pacific Northwest, through the lower 48, then Mexico and Central America, shipped her across the Darien Gap, with plans to hawk her off and use the money to start up a hostel and live happily every after in Buenos Aires, Rio, or some happening Latin locale.

Thus, we became the proud owner of Mango, the omnivore campervan. I say omnivore because of the essential trick that enables the SVO to function: we start the car up on diesel for about five minutes to give the fuel system, modified during installation, enough time to heat up and thin the used vegetable oil to the viscosity of petroleum diesel. Before we turn the car off we also run it on diesel for about five minutes, to flush the system of veggie oil. Veggie oil is thicker than diesel, and if put straight into your car’s tank without thinning, it can leave heavy carbon deposits that wear on your engine or precipitate instant mechanical death. And of course, before we put the used oil into our second tank we have to filter it to remove chunks of French fry, chicken, or whatever else our donor restaurants felt like frying up. Obviously, we try to rotate cuisines with our donor restaurants, to keep Mango’s B.O. from getting monotonous.

A lot of people are shocked when we tell them we are running our car on used vegetable oil, either because they had never heard of biofuels at all, or they had heard of refined biodiesel but never of running an engine on 100% unmodified, used veggie oil. To keep those conversations quick and not boring, I’ve come up with a few fun facts about the diesel engine, provided by, who else, Miss Mark: an early version of the diesel engine displayed at the 1918 world fair ran on peanut oil from French African colonies, several countries used vegetable oil to replace or extend petroleum diesel on the homefront during WWII, and crackpot homebrewers have been experimenting with second, veggie oil tanks in their cars in the Northern hemisphere since the 1970s oil shocks.

Another question we tend to get is whether it’s been hard to convince restaurants to give us oil. Unlike the U.S., where restaurants change their cooking oil frequently, restaurants down here may not change the cruddy oil that dishes up your French fries and chicken nuggets for months. Poorer and less educated regions also don’t have the environmental consciousness to properly dispose of the oil, so when they do get rid of it they dump it in the sewer, causing serious problems for urban water supplies. Despite all this, on average, we’ve struck greasy gold at the third or fourth restaurant we try for oil. We’ve got a full schpiel that gets better with age, especially since we printed Verdant Collective business cards, and set up a restaurant owner photo blog on our site. It also helped when we ditched the 30 cent pollerias for more upscale restaurants, which are more likely to change their oil frequently, save it for proper disposal, and invite us to a chilled beverage when we lay on the charm especially thick.

Lastly, we are often asked if used veggie oil is carbon neutral. Plantdrive, the company that installed our system, claims that “SVO is a carbon dioxide neutral fuel since plants capture CO2 and then it is released again when the oil from the plants is burned.” I’ll let you be the judge of that. Like any fuel burned in combustion engine, waste vegetable oil emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants, but as you can see in plant drive’s graph, particulate matter or soot content in waste veggie oil emissions is much lower than regular diesel. Is waste oil the end all solution to climate change and energy consumption? Of course not. For us, fueling our road trip with veggie oil is all about making people revisit their assumptions about waste, recycling, and energy consumption. As a U.S.-style consumer economy spreads across the world, finding multiple uses for our limited resources and so-called waste has never been more urgent, and recycling is a practice we can no longer think of as an uninvolved, hands-off activity. Again, we’re no experts or engineers, but we can hope to inspire.

So that’s our whole biodiesel shebang. Now that I’ve put you through all this, I’ll inform you that while straight vegetable oil is an alternative fuel source, it is not technically biodiesel. It has to be refined through the transesterification process to carry that namesake. But you know, details. If you do choose to follow in our footsteps and install an SVO system in your vehicle, be warned that it provides mechanics with an easy, and undeserving scapegoat when their fixes go awry. We’re told this is worse in the States, where dealership mechanics fear what they don’t understand.

For those looking to follow in Reth’s footsteps and start up your own backyard biodiesel refinery, or even a local green business, here are a few websites: www.localb100.com, www.biodieselnow.com, www.biodiesel.org, and www.biodieselcommunity.org.