Words by Luke Friend

Illustration by:www.timmarrs.co.uk

As the debate about alternative energy supplies rages on, the answer to finding a cleaner, greener fuel source could be closer than we think...

In the small, rural town of Ojai, California, Joe Wolf had an epiphany. An independent diesel mechanic for the local school district, Joe was preparing a talk for the kids’ Career Day and was researching the history of the diesel engine. He read how Rudolf Diesel, who had designed the engine in 1889, had taken his invention to the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo for a demonstration. It ran on peanut oil.

“Well, being who I am,” says Joe, “my mind just started spinning. So off to the barn I went with a bottle of Wesson (vegetable) oil in hand. I had a Perkins engine in the barn and it was my first victim. I fired the engine on diesel and then poured it in.”

George W Bush’s commitment to alternative fuels, and to Hydrogen fuel cell technology specifically, seems promising at first. In 2003 he announced a $1.2 billion programme that aims to have cars powered using this technology available to the mass-market by 2020. In his words, “hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era, the idea is to see that a child born today will be driving a car which will be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free.”

The science, put simply, sees electricity created from hydrogen fuel cells through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen that produces clean water vapour as its only emission. So far so good. But what the president failed to elaborate on is that these cells are only as clean as the fuels used to create them. Bush’s plans included spending $19.6 million to study the creation of hydrogen from gasoline. “That’s like trying to lose weight by running to McDonald’s,” says Daniel Becker, Director of the Global Warming and Energy Program at the international environmental organisation The Sierra Club.

Joe Wolf now runs VegPowered Systems with his wife Rebecca. It’s been several years since his breakthrough in the barn and progress has been rapid. They have been doing diesel to vegetable oil conversions for a little over three years and in that time have converted over 400 cars, trucks, tractors and boats. Their technology means that you can drive your regular diesel car into Joe’s garage and a few days later leave with a machine that causes zero pollution and saves you money.

“We take your vehicle and in three days we transform a cancerous, smelly machine into a vegged out, hopped up beast running on free fuel,” he says. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Indeed. It seems that perhaps George W Bush has been looking in the wrong places for his encouraging and innovative advances in fuel technology. Far removed from government-funded programmes and initiatives, there are hundreds of Joe Wolfs, tinkering away in their barns and garages, inspired by a genuine concern for the planet, rising oil-prices, dwindling reserves and the need to do something now.

In Germany, Dr. Christian Koch, recently received attention for his organic fuel that uses waste products such as paper, plastics and dead cats. After a backlash from animal rights groups he denied using dead cats to produce his fuel but you get the idea. There are alternatives to fossil fuels and we don’t need to wait until 2020 to utilise them.

“I got into vegetable oil because of global warming,” Kevin Bryant explains. Bryant is a 25-year-old snowboarder and climber based in Bend, Oregon. “My friends and I are avid outdoor people. Our surroundings were changing because of the way we live our lives so we decided to try and make a difference.”

A difference that now sees Bryant collecting vegetable oil from local restaurants and filtering it ready to sell on as fuel. Originally he had started by brewing biodiesel but using straight veggie oil seemed a logical progression. “It has already been used for its intended purpose, that of deep frying food. It’s full circle from the fields to food to fuel,” he says.

The relative simplicity of creating a vegetable oil biofuel makes it the most realistic alternative fuel out there. Most producers are small operators using local resources to serve local communities. Which also means that production and development isn’t without its problems.

Plymouth Bio-Fuels in Devon was ordered to pay £16,000 in back taxes by HM Revenue and Customs when their biofuel was deemed to no longer be eligible for the 20p per litre tax break that regular biodiesel receives. The case has since been dropped but highlighted the confusion surrounding the use of certain biofuels. Plymouth Bio-Fuels currently sell their product at 84.9p per litre, which is still 5p cheaper than regular diesel, but means the company, run by Jonathan Stromberg and Dolly Knight, operates with “little profit margin.”

But vegetable oil as fuel is here to stay. If governments choose to aid its development through grants and tax breaks (Germany carries a 0% tax so progress and use is advanced) then we have an opportunity to fully benefit from an alternative that is both cheaper and cleaner.

“Vegetable oil use is going to explode,” Kevin Bryant says. “We all want to live in a better world and if burning some used fryer oil makes a difference so be it.”

Just another little thing adding up to a bigger thing entirely.