Saturday, December 31, 2005

Deep Fried Ride
published 02 January 06 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Photos by Renee Jones •

One second-hand 1997 turbo-injected VW Jetta with 200,000 miles.
A $600 biodiesel conversion kit.
1,400 miles (between Boston and St. Paul).
30 gallons of grease (enough to fry 5,000 falafels).
A 10-micron filter.
One green button.
And a conservationist with a big heart.

Only an earth lover would understand what Zac Willette did to his car.

Three days after buying the second-hand Jetta diesel with 200,000 miles on it in New Hampshire, Willette drove to Boston. There, he and Patrick Keaney, cofounder of the Green Grease Monkey, dismantled its coolant system, drilled holes in the passenger-side floor and rerouted radiator hoses to a grease tank in the trunk.

Now Willette's retooled hybrid is fueled mainly with used restaurant fryer oil -- free to him -- instead of $2.60 a gallon petroleum diesel. Drive behind him and his exhaust smells faintly inviting, like French fries or falafel.

"I have been looking for a way to reduce my ecological footprint for a while," said Willette, 32, an educational, environmental and research jack-of-all trades.

He is part of a small but growing subculture that views waste vegetable oil as a potent source of fuel that is cheap, renewable and independent of foreign oil.

Before leaving Boston, Willette slapped a sticker on his car's rear bumper: "Powered by Vegetable Oil" (with the word "foreign" crossed out).

Then he stowed 30 gallons of filtered grease (courtesy of Green Grease Monkey) in his trunk and drove 1,400 miles home to St. Paul, stopping occasionally at little restaurants to refuel. The Jetta, which gets 40 to 50 miles per gallon, covered 560 miles on a single 12-gallon tank of grease.

Willette was amused at his own habitual reactions, eyeing a diesel fuel gauge that barely budged and reflexively scanning the freeway for gas stations. Still, this isn't the sole answer to global warming.

"If everybody ran their cars on waste vegetable oil, there wouldn't be enough to go around," Willette said. "But it's a great way to exist peaceably on the margins."

Embarrassed to drive a car
Locally, the Twin Cities Biodiesel Co-op, a group of biodiesel proponents, collects usable waste vegetable oil from restaurants, filters it and delivers it to people who like the idea, but don't want the bother. For a year, co-op founder Kai Curry, now 21, did what Willette is doing, but found it smelly and messy.

"My calculation showed I was better off putting 25 percent biodiesel into the gas tank and running that all the time instead of switching to grease in the city," he said.

Three kinds of people love recycling fryer oil for fuel: environmentalists, tinkerers and people who are -- ahem -- cheap. Willette says he's all three.

Actually he's not cheap. He's just embarrassed to be driving a car, particularly when he's the only one in it. This system fits his desire to live simply.

"The thrust of my life is taking delight in creation and helping others realize their own delight in creation," he said.

Though he's the son of a Blue Earth, Minn., farmer and still salivates at the thought of a juicy hamburger, Willette has stopped eating red meat because it takes so much energy to produce.

He lives in a neighborhood where he walks to the grocery store, gym, library and local watering hole. He commutes to work by bus. And he avoids chain restaurants, preferring small, owner-run sites such as the Black Sea in St. Paul.

In October when Willette asked for the restaurant's used fryer oil, owner Ali Akilli scratched his head quizzically.

"You want me to feed you and your car, too?" he asked. Akilli lugged a heavy 5-gallon pail filled with waste oil from the back for Willette to inspect. The sludge was thick and caramel brown with tiny bits of food suspended in it. Willette stirred it, producing glistening swirls but none of the white streaks that indicate the presence of animal fats.

"Perfect!" he told Akilli.

Willette has tried oil from several other restaurants, but finds Akilli's the best because he cooks only French fries and falafel in it, not fish or chicken, which might muck up the Jetta engine.

"It's a win, win, win," Willette said. "I get to unplug from the petroleum economy a bit." Akilli doesn't have to pay someone to haul the grease away. And it's way better for the environment.

Hot oil and fuel injectors
Willette loves gadgets. He peers into his Jetta engine, hatless and oblivious to the 8-degree cold, happily tracing heater coils, radiator hoses, filters and the fuel injector that soon will pump hot, dark fryer grease into the diesel engine.

If the notion of running a car on waste oil seems far-fetched, consider that Rudolf Diesel designed his eponymous engine to run on peanut oil, unveiling it at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris.

"He met an untimely -- some say suspicious -- death," Willette said. Colleagues popularized his engine, running it on the then-cheap and plentiful petroleum.

Vegetable oil has the same energy content as petroleum diesel, but is much thicker, said Steve Bertman, a chemistry professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

It would gum up an engine fast if you poured the brown sludge -- or even virgin olive oil -- directly into the gas tank. In frigid temperatures, the waste vegetable oil is as solid as Crisco. But when heated to 195 degrees, the oil thins to the consistency of petroleum diesel. At that point, a diesel engine can't tell the difference.

Willette starts the Jetta using its petroleum diesel fuel system. When the temperature gauge reads 195 to 200 degrees, he hits a green button on his dashboard, injecting hot grease into the engine.

He already filtered the oil once in his basement with a 10-micron sock filter that cost him $7 and installed three more filters at strategic spots on the fuel line.

He paid Keaney $600 for the biodiesel kit (high-end ones go for $2,000) and another $400 to help him install it so he would know how to fix it later.

'Zac is not a kook'
A red 12-gallon marine tank takes up perhaps a fifth of the Jetta's trunk. A thick black radiator hose redirects antifreeze from the engine into the tank, where a copper coil heats the grease. Another thick black hose (placed discreetly along the inside door frame and running through a hole on the passenger-side floor board) carries heated oil to the engine.

"I had to cut holes in the firewall of my car," Willette said. "That was the scariest part of the whole installation."

He spends about 45 minutes a week picking up oil from the restaurant and filtering it -- not much more time than it would take to fill up at a gas station, he said.

What Willette is doing is on the environmental fringe, Bertman said.

"I can imagine people reading this, saying, 'That's great, but this guy is a kook. I'm not going to do that to my car. Are you kidding? It's brand new. I'm not going to invalidate the warranty.' But Zac is not a kook. There are a lot of people doing this. Diesel cars were designed to run on straight vegetable oil," Bertman said.

"It's a lot cheaper, but you have to work harder. And most people would choose to pay more and work less. So for those people, biodiesel is a viable alternative."

Willette pokes gentle humor at his new obsession. He likes tinkering with machines. He likes the tactile sense of processing the fuel he consumes. He likes the friends he's made at the Black Sea. He likes treading more lightly on the planet. He even likes the smell of the grease.

"At the end of the day," he said, "all this is just goofy stuff that I like."

Kay Miller • 612-673-4393

[The paper also published the following two sidebars]

A life of service
Zac Willette's grease-mobile venture was intended to reduce his ecological footprint on the planet. But that is just one way he has worked to make the world a better place. Since graduating in 1996 from Vanderbilt University in elementary education and service learning, Willette:

• helped the Tohono O'odham Indians in Tucson, Ariz., start a cooperative to combat hunger as a VISTA fellow.

• helped found a charter school, the Hasan Preparatory & Leadership School in Tucson.

• trained students, teachers and federal policymakers through the National Youth Leadership Council in St. Paul.

• worked at the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica.

• took mentally and physically disabled people to the Boundary Waters as a canoe guide for Wilderness Inquiry.

Willette leaves in mid-January to volunteer for six months with the Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa in Bolivia, the only university recognized by the United Nations as a model for eradicating poverty. In the fall, he begins studies for a master's of divinity degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology.


Would You Like A 'frybrid' With That?
Twin Cities Biodiesel Co-op helps consumers obtain biodiesel fuels and install waste vegetable oil systems in diesel cars.

What: The co-op is a network of people who store biodiesel fuels in their garages. There's no station where you pull up and pump. Members deliver fuel by private car.

Members: 75.

Cost: Filtered vegetable oil is $1 to $2 per gallon. Biodiesel is $2.75 per gallon (made from vegetable oil that can be used on any diesel vehicle without modification).

Call: To order fuels or to contact Luke Matthews, who has modified dozens of diesel cars to use fryer oil as fuel, 612-605-1788.

Installation charge: $600 to $1,000.

Restrictions: Only works with diesel vehicles. Volkswagen and Mercedes sell the only diesel passenger cars in the United States, which comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. car fleet .

Pros: Recycling waste vegetable oil cuts pollution emissions by 60 percent or more, creates a valuable fuel and reduces need for foreign oil.

Cons: Can be messy and smelly. Freezes in the winter, requiring more energy to heat.

Twin Cities cars fueled by fryer oil: 20.

Twin Cities cars fueled by biodiesel: About 200.

Minnesota law: Requires that all diesel fuel contain at least 2 percent biodiesel.

More information: Kai Curry, president, Twin Cities Biodiesel Co-op, 612-605-1788. E-mail:

Other websites: