Fast-food fuel can be clean and mean

Josh Tickell is a man with a mission to promote biodiesel. Sean O'Grady looks at the fuel that could change America
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Like many young people in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, Josh Tickell eats fast food and drives a fast car. What sets Tickell apart from the crowd is not what he eats for lunch, but rather what his sports car eats.

Like many young people in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, Josh Tickell eats fast food and drives a fast car. What sets Tickell apart from the crowd is not what he eats for lunch, but rather what his sports car eats.

For Mr Tickell's custom-engineered, lipstick-red, 1971 Datsun 240Z "Veggie Car" runs on a fuel made from leftover fast-food frying oil. The fuel is called "biodiesel". According to Tickell, 28, founder of the not-for-profit Veggie Van Organisation, author of the book From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and the director of the upcoming feature film Fields of Fuel, the biodiesel fuel in his Veggie Car is biodegradable, non-toxic, runs in any diesel engine and costs about the same as regular petroleum fuel.

Tickell got the inspiration to use the vegetable oil-based fuel while at college when he was working on an organic farm in the former East Germany. Tickell saw farmers using vegetable oil to power their tractors and wondered if this might be a viable fuel for a US cross-country road trip.

With that idea in mind, Tickell created a vehicle he called the Veggie Van complete with a tow-behind fuel processor called "The Green Grease Machine". He set out across America in early 1997 with the objective of crossing the country fuelled only by the used cooking oil from fast food restaurants he visited along his route.

By the end of the first month of the Veggie Van Voyage in the summer of 1997, over 1 million people had visited The Veggie Van website ( www.VeggieVan.org). Tickell travelled in The Veggie Van for two years, receiving thousands of e-mails and being covered by The NBC Today show, Dateline, CNN and The Discovery Channel.

Biodiesel's history dates back to the first diesel engine, which Dr Rudolf Diesel actually designed to run on vegetable oil. Modern diesel engines can run on vegetable oil too, but the oil must be highly processed, the glycerin must be removed and a very small amount of alcohol must be added. This process, called transesterification, effectively "thins" the vegetable oil. The result is biodiesel, a fuel that is compatible with any diesel engine.

To use biodiesel, you just pour it in. Biodiesel even mixes with petroleum diesel in any ratio, so you don't have to worry about converting a vehicle or switching fuels.

Biodiesel also lowers diesel emissions, especially the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is reduced by up to 100 per cent, and the cancer-causing emissions known as poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are reduced by 75-85 per cent.

So what's the catch? Biodiesel does not perform as well as petroleum diesel in cold weather. Like diesel fuel, biodiesel gels, but it does so at slightly higher temperatures.

The simple solution found by many fleet operators is to use a mixture of biodiesel with diesel fuel. A 20 per cent biodiesel/80 per cent diesel fuel mix, or "B20", is the most common blend in the US.

Tickell has reported that new additives are being introduced which will make biodiesel operable at or below normal temperatures. The staff at Yellowstone National Park are already using it at temperatures well below freezing.

Even though biodiesel production has reached 20 million gallons in the US and over 2 billion gallons in France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Tickell still sees the promotion of biodiesel as an important mission: "This is not just a fuel," says Tickell, who put a diesel engine in his sports car in order to show people that biodiesel is "cool". "It's a statement. My generation will not put up with dirty air, dirty politics or dirty oil.

"Instead, we're embracing innovations like biodiesel. Innovations that bring jobs and strengthen the economy while protecting the environment."

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