Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Grease Beast

Today, I would like to present to you Le Petit Beurre,  Little Butter, the inspiration for the title of this blog.  You see, not only is this body powered by plants, my car is too.  Most of the time.

Le Petit Beurre is our 1982 Diesel Mercedes that runs on vegetable oil.  That's right, vegetable oil.  And yes, she smells like french fries, unless she's busy smelling like wontons, because we run her on used vegetable oil.  Dirty old, used up, thrown out, unwanted vegetable oil, commonly called WVO for "waste vegetable oil," powers our car.  Free fuel.  Free from conflict, free from supporting big oil, half the emissions.  I can't begin to tell you how much that turns me on.

A couple of friends have been curious to know how it works, so I'll try to give you a brief explanation.  I'm no expert.  Most of my information comes from wikipedia and my friend Koren, so hopefully he'll approve of what I write here.  If he doesn't, I trust he'll correct or elaborate in the comments section.

The very first diesel engine, designed by Mr. Rudolph Diesel himself, ran on peanut oil.  That was in 1892.  We've known how to run engines on vegetable oil - a renewable resource - since the invention of the diesel engine in 1892.  If that fact doesn't make your head spin, or at least make your wheels turn about how this nation operates, I don't know what will.  (Insert number of lives lost in oil wars here.)

I find that to be astonishing.  So the first diesel engines were designed to run on vegetable oil, and while that was well over 100 years ago, the technology hasn't changed that much (imagine what they might be like if we had invested some of our oil war cash in research and development of the veggie car). Old Mercedes and Volkswagen diesels are notorious for being good grease cars. If you have one, start doing your research.

The Mercedes-Benz w123 diesel, manufactured from 1976 to 1985, runs like a champ when you pour veggie oil in the tank.  In summer months, when it's nice and warm outside and there's no chance of frost, it can go straight into the tank without any modifications necessary.  You just have to make sure the oil is clean - no french fry chunks or water.  We get our oil from a chef at a local restaurant.  He changes his fry oil weekly, doesn't contaminate it with water or cleaners, hands it over in a five gallon bucket, and is easily kept happy with a batch of baked goods here and there.  We love him.

We then strain the oil through a pair of jeans in the basement of our apartment building, and it's ready to go into the car.

Gotta love that flesh tone color - no time wasted wandering parking lots searching for you car.
Now, since we wanted to be able to drive on veggie oil in colder months, we had to install a second tank.  The second tank lives in the trunk and has a heating coil inside it.  We start the car on diesel, the engine heats up, coolant heats the coil in the second tank, warms the veggie oil up, and when the whole system is up to temperature we throw a switch and begin run on the veggie oil.  We then exclaim, "We're running on veg!" exchange high fives, and drive on with proud smiles on our faces. Before shutting down the car, we throw a switch to purge the system, and flip it back over to diesel.  This way we insure that there's no veggie oil in the lines that could potentially congeal and cause problems for a cold weather start.

This website, KTM Auto in Plymouth, New Hampshire, shows a diagram of how it works.  He also gives a parts list so that you can put together a kit yourself, rather than buy one already assembled.  Here's a little flow chart:

Did I mention that it gives off 48% less carbon emissions?

There's a great article about a wave of these cars infiltrating Eugene, Oregon in 2008 on The Truth About Cars.  He says:

"What more can be said about the absolute integrity of these cars, in terms of their material and build quality? All the superlatives have long become cliches. Their heavy dull steering; seats as hard as a wooden pew but yet comfortable; their jerky-herky transmissions; the suspensions that drink up pot-holes as if they were a tonic for eternal youth. And of course that reassuring throb of the engine, a device more akin to a perpetual motion machine than a mere mortal internal combustion engine..."

Still, I love it.  I love what it represents.  I love that it's a little dirty.  The cleanliness at the pump is a false cleanliness.  Maybe I don't get my hands dirty, but there's blood in that oil.  Our insatiable hunger for a resource that is being exhausted costs lives, human and otherwise, and damages the environment as it's extracted, spilled, and burned.  Plus, it's friggin expensive.

To quote a friend, "I love looking around and noticing that our car is the cheapest in the lot, and that I wouldn't trade it for any of the others." We get dirty schlepping fry oil from here to there, sure.  But it helps keep me honest and paying attention to how much I'm driving.  We still use diesel too, but as little as possible.

Now I know we can't all go out and get old Mercedes and Volkswagens to drive around, and I'm not suggesting I'm any better or smarter than anyone for having one.  I was lucky to find this one.  I didn't really know they existed as recently as a year ago.  I also know that we can't all afford a Prius, and that the jury is out on their carbon footprint anyway.

The point is just this:  to keep paying attention, learning, and trying.  There are alternatives.  The technology exists.  We don't have to be dependent on foreign oil.  We can funnel our resources into development of new ways of navigating this planet.  This is going to take large, institutional changes.  As individuals, we can tread a little bit more lightly by curbing our consumption, and we can bring these alternatives into the discussion.  We can ride our bikes more.  Walk more.  Shop less....

Can you see her?  NOT a great time to run on veggie oil.
This little car came into my life not so long ago, at the end of a summer of working on an organic homestead in Dorchester, NH called D Acres.  That whole story is worth plenty of blog posts itself, but today I just wanted to talk about the car.  I'm so grateful for the crazy succession of events that dropped it in my lap.  I'm grateful for the friends who know more, for their freely shared experience, and their continued support.

I'll put up better pictures in the summer, when it's nice and warm and clean outside.  Until then, thanks for reading.  Lots of love your way from Montreal~


  1. Hi Lacey - I think what you are doing, running a car on waste vegetable oil is great but there is a limit to how far this can go.

    Sadly, the economics of widespread vegetable oil production as a replacement for traditional oil don't stack up - it takes almost a gallon of oil to produce and transport a gallon of veggie oil and even if all the land set aside for food production was dedicated to veggie oil production it would only meet 10% of north america's oil needs.

    We need to do something but vegetable oil is only a niche solution. That said, using waste oil instead of disposing of it is a great thing to be doing

    1. 48% less carbon emission than fossil fuels in it's afterlife, don't forget that a veggie fuel source spends it's whole life breathing in co2, and exhaling o2. by most calculations that makes it a net wash.

      and that’s without getting into the no-sulfur-emission thing attempted by big petrol at the cost of additional energy for refinement, and extra abrasion to your engine.

      wvo ain't abrasive; it's 100% lube oil! rudy d. intended farmers to be self sustaining by being able to farm their own fuel. at that time crude oil was spewing from the ground and labor intensive veggie oil was comparatively outrageous. fast forward 100 years and that crude blood oil now has an immeasurable price, and wvo spews from the back door of nearly every bar and 'restaurant' 

      how can a gallon of veggie require a gallon of production and transport fuel when it can be pressed by a hydro mill, wind mill or others, and can be grown locally in nearly any climate? doesn't local = minuscule transport impact? saving a car that survived through the whole cash for clunkers fiasco, and and using a waste product from the worlds atrocious eating habits has nothing to do with available acres for food production. wouldn't the real question be 'how do we justify the use of so many acres of fertile land to support the greasy fast food addiction?  grease cars are wiping up their mess! consider that a big diesel truck pumps out the Wvo and then 'transports' it to a plant for further oil fueled refinement for use in it's second life.  

      the only one to break that cycle is the greaser who fuels their car carbon neutrally.

      long live the fatmobile!!!   

  2. Lacey - just reread my previous post. Hope it doesnt come across as negative. What you are doing is brilliant its just that we need to find something more sustainable.

    Didn't mean to rain on your parade - love the grease beast by the way!

  3. Hey there CAS, (still not sure who you are, by the way :)

    Thanks for the discourse! My parade does not feel rained on in the least. I couldn't agree more that this isn't a solution to the world's oil problems, by no means. Our problems are much more complex than that. But in the absence of large scale initiative towards wide scale solutions, niche solutions, as you call them, are a good starting point for the individual, and a way to take positive action. For instance, I know that refusing to use disposable cups and always using my refillable coffee cup isn't going to stop our MASSIVE waste problems, but I do it because I feel somehow less complicit in our destruction. With waste vegetable oil, the fact is that there's a lot of waste, an inconceivable amount of waste, that comes from something as silly as french fry production. And if I can use that trash to drive my car, then I'm all for it.

    I'm curious to know where you got your statistics and would love a link if you have one. I still have a lot to learn in this arena.

    Also, I think you touched on a very important point; "oil needs." Our conception of "need" needs to be addressed. As a culture we've been in buy/use/get/consume as much as you want whenever you want mode for far too long, which is definitely at the root of the predicament we find ourselves in. That, and people's unwillingness to admit that we're in a predicament :)

  4. Here's a clip from a speech by Jimmy Carter in which he addresses consumption habits. It pointed to a truth that was strong enough to loose him an election.