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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Cars II: A Higher Octane

Air Date: Week of

Two Florida entrepreneurs spread the gospel of renewable energy as they travel across the country in their 1986 Winnebago, which runs on the used vegetable oil they collect from fast-food restaurants.


CURWOOD: There's one alternatively-powered vehicle that you won't find even at the huge Detroit auto show.

WOMAN: Hello, welcome to Long John Silver's. Is this going to be for here or to go?

K. TIKEL: It's going to be to go. We're with the Veggie Van outside...

CURWOOD: When Kaya and Joshua Tikel want a fill-up, they just drive to a fast food window and have it their way. Oh, they give the burgers and fries a miss, and instead ask for an extra helping of used vegetable oil. That's right. The couple take old cooking oil from fast food outlets and turn it into clean-burning fuel to power what they call their Veggie Van. The Veggie Van has taken the Tikels all over the country on an education project to promote the use of renewable energy. Producer Bill George caught up with the duo in Sarasota, Florida.

(An engine starts up)

K. TIKEL: We were really amazed when we started researching this fuel. One thing that we learned is that the original diesel engine was designed by Rudolf Diesel over 100 years ago to run on vegetable oil. His engine was later modified to run on a dirty byproduct of petroleum, which was called diesel fuel, and the idea of running an engine on vegetable oil sort of got lost. So we wanted to take this idea back and help people know this unknown bit of information.

J. TIKEL: We spent a lot of time in the laboratory and in the engine compartment of different vehicles learning about this fuel and making it work, and that became basically our obsession, our passion.

(Engine runs)

K. TIKEL (through bullhorn): This is the Veggie Van, the vegetable oil-powered van that has traveled all around the country, powered by vegetable oil from fast food restaurants...

(To George) We bought the Veggie Van but we didn't want to put any strange fuel into the engine right away before we knew it would actually work. So we got a small Volkswagen, a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine, and we experimented with various mixtures of this fryer grease fuel in that car, until we felt confident enough that it worked.

(Door shuts)

J. TIKEL: Well, here we are inside the Veggie Van. This is our little mobile house; it's kind of like a spaceship. It's got everything we need to stay alive.

(Fluid runs)

K. TIKEL: Everything electrical runs on solar power, so we've got the little refrigerator, a little TV, a couple fans. And you can see the charge controller over there on the wall, pretty much produces enough electricity for us to use anything we want. And even if it's cloudy for a week, we still have enough electricity because we have batteries under that seat over there, which store the energy. We've got the solar panels mounted on the roof, about 150 watts right now. At different times we'll have jugs of fuel in here, up to 100 gallons of fuel in jugs, in here. The fuel is not flammable at all. You can throw a match on it and it won't catch on fire, and it's not toxic.

J. TIKEL: It smells like the inside of a fast food restaurant. It really does.

(Fluid runs)

J. TIKEL: What we do to make the diesel engine run on vegetable oil is we modify the vegetable oil. We make it light and viscous, just like diesel fuel is. And we do that by a very simple chemical process.

(Buzzing sounds)

J. TIKEL: We mix methanol, which is alcohol, and lye, which is a white powdery drain cleaner, with the vegetable oil.

(A mixer runs)

K. TIKEL: It's actually a very empowering experience to make your own fuel, even if you just make a liter of fuel in a blender. The feeling that you can actually make something, to create your own power and not have to be dependent on the oil companies or the gas station to still get from one place to another. And also the environmental benefits are just fantastic. This fuel is 75% cleaner than diesel fuel. So you really feel like you're making an impact.

J. TIKEL: We get 25 miles to the gallon.

(Loud pumping sounds)

J. TIKEL: We're just filling up the Veggie Van with some bio-diesel, which we made. And I've just got a little 12-volt pump here that I hook up to the engine, and just sucks it right out of the jugs and right into the fuel tank.

(Pump shuts down; engine starts)

K. TIKEL: Sometimes we are running low on fuel and we just have to look in the phone book under restaurants and call up whoever is closest. And we have gotten grease everywhere from the Long John Silver's, Kentucky Fried Chicken chains, to the mom and pop burger spot, you know --

J. TIKEL: Truck stops.

K. TIKEL: Truck stops. All over the place. And you'd think that, you know, we would get turned down once in a while, but actually we've never been turned down.

(A horn beeps)

CURWOOD: Bill George produced our sound portrait of Kaya and Joshua Tikel and their Veggie Van.



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