Bio-fuel dreams unite farmers and mechanics

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A car that runs on French fry fat?

When two organic farmers from Wisconsin approached Bradan Automotive co-owners Dan Lovestrand and Brad Larson with the idea last year, the Northeast mechanics were intrigued. Both liked the idea of alternative fuel, and they said they got excited about the challenge.

They told the Wisconsinites, Bryan Burnoski and Nadine Holder, that they would give it a try. Several months later, the two mechanics started work on the couple’s newly purchased 1982 240D diesel-powered Mercedes. They installed a 15-gallon fuel tank in the trunk, where the spare tire normally is stored, and put a ready-made conversion kit, with pumps and hoses, into the engine compartment.

Thirty hours of work later, the Mercedes was ready for a test run.

“We had fun with the idea,” Larson said. “Although I have to say I was nervous the first time we flicked the switch.”

The process of converting a diesel car to run on diesel fuel and fryer fat has been around for a while, Burnoski said; he got the idea from Joshua Tickell’s 2003 book, “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank.”

Bio-fuel stories
Many people around the country have been experimenting with biofuels in recent years, saying the fuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels and pose fewer health risks than gasoline. According to a Dallas Morning News report in June, 2005, the city of Denton, Texas, plans to convert all of its city-owned fleet to bio-diesel vehicles within a year.

And the American Automobile Association reports that drivers across the country have been adding vegetable oil converters to cut back on sooty emissions and save money.

Some students at the University of Washington have converted diesel cars into biodiesel cars, and are encouraging the university to convert its 800-car fleet, according to a June 8, 2005, report by Gary Chittim of Southern Arizona’s Eyewitness news.

Community homestead
Lovestrand said Burnoski had been coming into the shop for more than a year, talking about alternative fuel cars.

Burnoski and Holder are staff members and part owners of Community Homestead in Osceola, Wisc., an incorporated, non-profit residential facility for adults with developmental disabilities. Holder said Community Homestead is an “intentional community” of six houses.

A small group of people living in “families”—who might or might not be related—occupy each house. “They’re not group homes,” Holder said. “They’re individually [room and board] licensed houses.” The community runs an organic dairy farm and vegetable garden.

After getting to know Burnoski and thinking about the car for a while, Lovestrand proposed a barter. If Burnoski could find some friends to help paint their automotive building, Lovestrand and Larson would do the work. The next thing he knew, he said, “The whole commune showed up to paint our building.”

How it works
Lovestrand installed an engine temperature gauge, a toggle switch, and a (fat) fuel gauge on the dashboard. When the driver starts the car, it runs on diesel fuel until the engine temperature reaches 160 degrees. Then, the driver flips a toggle switch that opens an electronically controlled valve, and the car starts burning fat.

Lovestrand separated the lines, putting the fuel line inside the coolant line. “You use the engine’s coolant to keep the grease hot. The tank in back [the trunk] is warmed by the whole system.” He had to make some changes to adapt the system to Minnesota temperatures, he said, because the kit they installed came from the west coast.

At the end of the journey, the driver flips the toggle switch the other way, to purge the fryer grease out of the lines and push it back to the tank. The system won’t work if the grease cools down when it’s still in the hoses.

When the car’s turned off, “the tail pipe emissions smell like burnt potato chips,” Lovestrand said. “It’s kind of strange, but it smells better than diesel fuel.”

He added that the project has been a work in progress. “I’ll be able to do the second one a lot faster. I like it, because it shows people there are alternatives to using gasoline.” He said the kit came with special instructions for a Mercedes; many people like the car because the engine is so good. “You can get 400,000 to 500,000 miles out of them if you treat them right.”

Burnoski and Holder said they like the idea of the car, because it fits in with Community Homestead’s mission of being environmentally responsible. “This is recycling,” Burnoski said.

He said they get their fat from a restaurant, but they have to filter it and be diligent about the quality.

The car was a success early on, he added. “When we first turned from diesel to vegetable oil, the RPMs didn’t change; the engine stayed smooth and steady and the exhaust smelled nicer.” But there were problems, too: when Holder put passengers in the car, the coolant lines, which were hanging down, snapped.

Burnoski said, “This isn’t something you just pop in your car and away you go. You have to understand that it’s a process, and you have to be excited about wanting to do it.”

When asked if it saves money, Holder said that the cost of fuel is zero (if the fat is donated), but they have to buy fuel filters. They spent $3,000 to buy the car, and another $1,000 on the conversion, she added. When they drive from Osceola, Wisc., to the Twin Cities—where she is a Hamline University student and he is a sign language interpreter at United Theological Seminary—they are able to run about 40 minutes of the journey on fat instead of diesel fuel.

“The emissions are far lower and the car pollutes less,” Burnoski said. “We get about 30 miles to the gallon.”

Lovestrand said he enjoyed working on the car, and has also been tinkering with another customer’s three-cylinder Geo Metro, which so far is getting 60 miles to the gallon. He said he tells his customers that there are many ways to improve their cars’ fuel efficiency. “Oxygen sensors, tire pressure, fuel, oil, they all make a difference.”

Holder said, “Brad and Dan have just been amazing. It’s been great to find people who were willing to trade work, and were also excited about sustainability. This [car] may not be the best way to go, but with the energy crisis, at least we can say we tried.”

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