Vegetation transportation

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(Published October. 26, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

Alternatives to traditional auto fuels have been with us the whole time.

By Dan Plutchak/The Week

It's raining out, and the cold fat drops are making a racket as they hit the overhang on the garage on Dave Torgerson's Lyons Township home.

The sound of the rain competes with the clacky rumble of the diesel engine in his dark-blue VW Jetta. As it runs, the engine is emitting the faint smell of Chinese food.

That's because Torgerson's car doesn't run only on diesel fuel.

It runs, mostly, on vegetable oil. In this case, used vegetable oil from an Elkhorn-area restaurant that would otherwise pay someone to haul away.

Not long ago, diesel engines that were converted to run on vegetable oil were an obscure hobby for gear heads and environmental tinkerers.

But when gasoline topped $3 a gallon a few months back, alternative fuels went from novelty to wave of the future, and Torgerson is one of a growing number of car owners who are riding that wave.

"By no means is it convenient," Torgerson said, "but it's great for the environment; you don't have the pollution of the petroleum, you're not supporting the terrorists and you're helping your pocketbook.

"As prices go high and higher, I laugh."

Torgerson, who is also the director of the Destination Imagination program for the Lake Geneva School District, says he first learned you could run a diesel engine on vegetable oil four years ago from a neighbor.

Realistically, most people wouldn't pay much attention, but this is the kind of thing that Torgerson is naturally interested in.

An automotive test engineer by profession, Torgerson is a supervisor for an automotive test facility near Chicago. For the past 20 years or so, he's run simulations of running conditions on engines, coolant circulation systems and oil circulation systems-that sort of thing.

So, converting a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil was just up his alley.

He says that while researching diesel engines, he found that the inventor, Rudolph Diesel, actually designed his new engine to run on peanut oil. It was only later that the petrochemical industry found a fuel that would run a diesel engine.

In many ways, Diesel was tackling the same issues that face us today. In the mid 1800s, many parts of the world didn't have access to coal or oil. Diesel wanted to invent an engine that would let smaller companies compete with larger industrial operations.

Torgerson's conversion is actually returning the engine to running the way it was originally designed.

The modification of the cars, known as veggie cars or grease cars, works like this: A separate tank is installed to hold the vegetable oil. A line runs from the engine's cooling system through the tank of vegetable oil to heat it to a usable temperature.

The car runs on traditional diesel until the vegetable oil is up to temperature-five minutes or so. At that point, a valve in the fuel line switches from diesel to vegetable oil.

Shortly before the car is shut off, the process is reversed. The valves are switched and the fuel line is filled with diesel.

"Otherwise, unfortunately, during the winter, your lines will be full of lard and you'll have to wait for a warm day to start it up again," Torgerson said.

On a rainy day like this, Torgerson doesn't have to worry about getting out of his car at the filling station.

He just pulls into his attached garage, a makeshift vegetable oil self-serve refueling station.

He has a supply of five-gallon containers and a pump that he brings with him to the restaurant when he needs a supply of vegetable oil.

In the back of his garage is a large storage tank, something you might find on a farm, that he keeps heated and filled with filtered vegetable oil.

Torgerson says he's currently on the lookout for other places he can get used vegetable oil.

He's not the only one that's noticed that used vegetable oil can be a valuable commodity. Companies that restaurants have traditionally paid to haul away their used oil are now turning around and offering incentives to lock in long-term disposal contracts.

Torgerson is now on his second-generation veggie car and continues to look for others to convert.

He admits they're difficult to come by. Volkswagen has produced diesel versions of the cars off and on over the years, but they're not all that common. Volvo made a diesel station wagon for a while and there are a variety of trucks running on diesel.

His first conversion was two years ago-A 1997 Volkswagen Passat that his daughter, Kristin, now drives.

In the past two years, they've put 88,000 vegetable oil miles on it. The odometer on the car has rolled over twice and now and sits at about 256,000 miles.

Torgerson's daughter, a student at Gateway Technical College and bartender at Foley's Bar and Grill, says that the effect on her pocket book has been noticeable.

"I like saving the money," she says. "Why not? Gas prices have been rising so much."

Torgerson agrees. He thinks they'd be perfect for low-income people or kids just getting started. Torgerson and his wife Meg have two sons, Mike and Ryan, but daughter Kristin is the only one of the kids to have her own veggie car.

Kristin says she had heard of veggie cars before her dad started tinkering with them. Alternative fuels are commonly promoted on the concert circuit for bands like Fish and other Grateful Dead influenced bands, she says.

Dave Torgerson says the Passat averages around 44 miles per gallon on vegetable oil, and that when he was driving it, he'd put on 1,500 miles for every gallon of diesel fuel he'd use.

That means he's spending about $2.25 for fuel when the rest of us have gone through $150.

Torgerson admits it's not as convenient as pulling into the gas station, but the benefits are significant.

Consider that he travels 72 miles one way to Skokie each day; the cost of gasoline could be staggering. But on top of running his car on vegatable oil, Torgerson is in a car pool. "So not only do I protect the environment, I save money on my fuel and drive every other day," he said.

Conventional wisdom says we're a long way off from running cars on vegetable oil. The automotive industry is currently focused on gas/eclectic hybrid cars and most calculations indicate that the amount of corn required to replace gasoline would be nearly impossible to grow.

But don't tell that to Dave Torgerson-he's got smaller fish to fry. Or perhaps, French fries and egg rolls.

The author is editor of The Week.

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