Grease lightning: A bus that runs on vegetable oil
AIMÃ‰E BLANCHETTE, Star Tribune
Unlike most of her college friends, who are working and living at home over the summer, Addie Gorlin of Hopkins is spending her summer on a smelly school bus.
Gorlin is one of 12 students from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who are road-tripping on a vegetable oil-powered "Big Green Bus" to spread the word about taking better care of the environment. While the bus has a profound smell of French fries and won tons, Gorlin said the only drawback is that it makes everyone hungry.
"There's so many life lessons to be learned from this bus. We get to learn about the United States and all the environmental aspects, and we get to talk to so many different people," Gorlin said. "And, just learning to live with 11 other people on a 37-foot-long bus is certainly a valuable life experience."
During their 34th stop of the summer, in Minneapolis last week, the crew took advantage of some down time at Gorlin's family home after driving two straight nights from Yellowstone National Park. While a few members of the crew ate lunch and napped in the hammock, Gorlin wrangled up some of her bus mates and a few of her relatives who were curious about the "greasing" process. The bus had to be fed, and Gorlin knew just the place.
Heads turned as the 1996 International Harvester school bus rolled into the parking lot of Wagner's Drive-In on Hwy. 7 in Hopkins, one of Gorlin's favorite childhood eateries. This time, she was there to collect the restaurant's waste grease.
After checking the quality of the grease (it cannot contain water) Gorlin lowered a hose into the smelly black dumpster behind the restaurant. Fellow Dartmouth student Trey Roy fired up a pump, and the oil was sucked to a filtration system where fried morsels were removed. After a french fry clogged the hose, the crew stopped and checked the gauge: 37.6 gallons in the holding tank. Success.
Gorlin said powering the bus with vegetable oil is not only cheaper than using gas and better for the environment, it's also a way for restaurants to recycle a product that would normally be thrown away.
The bus tour is about 80 percent over, but the people they meet on the road are as curious as ever. While Maple Grove resident David Sandmann was having lunch with some co-workers at Wagner's, he was inspired to talk with the crew about their mission. "I think it's a great inspiration for students or younger kids to see this kind of thing," Sandmann said. "Maybe they'll inspire others."
The Dartmouth students say that's exactly what they're trying to do -- inspire people young and old to make small changes in the way they live.
Don't get the wrong idea though. The enthusiastic 19- to 23-year-olds described themselves as typical college kids who want people to know that "you don't have to be a Birkenstock-wearing, green-loving, stereotypical hippie" to make a change, Gorlin said. "That's not environmentalism today."
The crew is able to maintain a sustainable lifestyle on the bus while enjoying many of the comforts of home, except air conditioning. The tricked-out school bus has broadband Internet access powered by five solar panels on the bus roof. The panels provide more than enough electricity to power a TV, refrigerator and freezer, PlayStation 2, laptops, iPods and cell phones.
How the bus works
The bus has a diesel engine that was converted to run on vegetable oil. A second fuel tank was installed to store the oil, which powers the bus once it's heated to 158 degrees. The oil is heated when the engine is running, so it takes a while for the oil to get warm enough to use. Then it's a matter of flipping a switch from diesel to vegetable oil.
A summer road trip isn't complete without its share of mishaps. It's not unusual for the bus to have problems, then to find one of the guys shirtless, trouble-shooting a hose problem beneath the chassis while grease drips on his forehead. In an emergency, the bus can switch to running on diesel fuel.
The crew also runs into restaurants that say "no" when asked for their waste grease. With the increase in biodiesel production facilities, many restaurants have contracts with businesses that pick up the used grease.
"With the price of oil in general and the move toward biodiesel, in a lot of cases now, restaurants get [waste oil] picked up for free," said Jon Getzinger, vice president of sales and marketing for Eagan-based Restaurant Technologies, the biggest U.S. grease recycler for the McDonald's Corp. In some cases, Getzinger said, restaurants will even receive a small payment for their waste oil.
So there is no Chicken McNugget grease for this green bus.
"It's a good problem to have," Gorlin said.
Although the work along the way has been difficult, so far the students have had a great time, surfing in Oregon, stopping for the Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee and seeing fireworks on the Fourth of July in Colorado. During their Minnesota visit, the crew met with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak at a light rail stop. Metro Transit joined the discussion with one of its hybrid, electric-powered buses. By the end of 2012, Metro Transit officials say they will have 172 hybrid buses on the roads. HourCar, a Twin Cities car-sharing service, was also on site with one of its vehicles.
"It was really cool seeing that combination of all the modes of sustainable transportation," Gorlin said. "It's interesting ... seeing Minnesota with a new green lens."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715