Fat as Fuel

The Xtracycle/Ginger Ninjas motor vehicle, Millie the Millennium Van, was first put on a diet of recycled fryer grease beginning in 2002. Millie is a ’74 schoolbus outfitted for bringing the show on the road, as she has been faithfully doing since her (re)birth on the Millennial New Years. In her conversion experience, Ross and I began the process of modifying Millie’s Caterpillar diesel engine to be able to also run on straight vegetable oil.

millie polaroid

With help from the team at Greasecar (conversion specialists in Massachusetts), we installed two new tanks and hardware for preheating the entire fuel system.

Millie’s maiden “veggie” voyage took the crew up to the Oregon Country Fair in mid-July of that year. Before leaving, we pumped her up with 120 gallons of waste organic corn and olive oil that had been picked up in drums from a local oil processor.

Because vegetable oil is made of plants, when it is burned the carbon it releases doesn’t contribute to global warming. The plants took carbon out of the atmosphere to grow; when the oil is burned, the carbon goes back and new plants suck it up again, and there’s no net increase in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s as opposed to burning petroleum from deep in the Earth that injects NEW carbon into the atmosphere. This is what I wrote the first time we rolled her on veggie: “The first whiff of that stuff while driving felt transformational. We smelled like a tortilla factory. I couldn’t get over the giddiness of driving down the road without warming up the world.”

On voyage uno, an electrical problem with the fuel-switching device stranded the crew on an overpass above the splendid Willamette River in Eugene on a shoulderless freeway! The intrepid crew had to climb out the window and tiptoe along the guardrail high above the river to get to the engine compartment. While the grease monkeys played with the fuel switching solenoid, the rest of the crew sang the now tried-and-true “Go, Millie, Go” song and got the bus rocking and the engine purring.

At the Country Fair, the team had the fortune to bump into Ian from Eugene Biosource, and was able to fill up tank number one with 50 gallons of bio-diesel. On the return trip, Millie stopped for her first Fast Food supper. A small friendly Mexican restaurant in Yreka happily handed over 5 gallons of pretty clean looking oil that was filtered and pumped into tank number two. Next stop, Carl’s Jr. The manager was pleased as a peach to let the grease gatherers siphon about 50 gallons out of her grease trap. Boy, did it stink, though. The group agreed to abstain from the smelly hamburger grease in the future.

That was 3 years ago. Since then Millie has taken us rafting in Idaho and Califonia, tortilla sampling in Baja, trade showing in Las Vegas, to peace marches in San Francisco, to hotsprings in Nevada, peach picking back in Oregon, and towing a 10,000 pound solar-powered stage on a five-state music tour with New Belgium Brewery (damned good beer, and really cool bike-ridin’ company, but why aren’t they Organic with a big O?). And it hasn’t been on Veggie oil all the time. People call the fuel Straight Vegetable Oil (as opposed to Biodiesel) and abbreviate it as SVO. But to us, SVO stands for sometimes vegetable oil, because it doesn’t always work.

Most diesel rigs can run on SVO, but it takes commitment. The fuel may be free at the back of restaurants, but it ain’t easy! It very well might be worth it though, if you fancy the idea of decreasing your reliance on dead dinos and increasing your reliance on self.

We’ve had problems of one sort or another along the way. A long-term problem has been figuring out the right filters to use for the oil. And despite our fuel-tank heating system, we were still finding that the oil wasn’t getting hot enough by the time it got to the fuel injectors (or was cooling down on the way). This problem we solved with a miracle little device called the VegTherm, made by our friends at plantdrive.

I think trying to drive veggie, if one must drive, is worthy!

Thinking of weaning yourself from petrol? Learn more on of these pages.

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