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Vegetable-Powered Bus Tours America

Vienna resident and his college friends spread the word about alternate fuel.

Andy Wright hails from Vienna, but he traveled a long way to arrive at the mall in D.C. last Saturday. Wright and several of his friends from Dartmouth College, where he recently graduated, have been touring the country since mid-June in a school bus powered almost entirely by waste vegetable oil. Along the way, they have been spreading the word about alternate energy sources and still finding plenty of time to enjoy themselves.

Nine of the 12 travelers graduated in the spring, and several majored in such apt subjects as engineering and environmental studies. Wright, however, majored in government at anthropology.

“It’s a pretty cool way to kind of wrap up our Dartmouth career,” he said of the tour.

The “Big Green Bus” started out from the school in Hanover, N.H. on June 14, wound its way through the Midwest and out to California, and came back across the country through the South. It is now on its way north to New England and is scheduled to arrive back in New Hampshire at the end of August.

Along the way, the group has made frequent stops, educating themselves and others, playing, working, and asking restaurants if the bus can take any used cooking oil off their hands. “They usually pay to get rid of it,” said Wright. “They don’t pay us, which is unfortunate,” he smiled.

THE BUS' FIRST STOP was at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., where the former students not only enjoyed the festivities but also set up their own educational booth.

In Custer, Wisc., they attended a sustainability festival. “Everyone there knew as much, if not more, than all of us” about sustainable energy sources, said Wright.

In California, they stopped at the beach whenever possible, said Craig Rubens, one of Wright’s traveling companions. They also visited the Grand Canyon. Most of their stay in New Orleans was spent sightseeing, said Rubens, but In Biloxi, Miss., they met with a hurricane relief network and spent two days on the dirty job of scrubbing mold out of a water-damaged funeral home.

Only the day before they arrived on the mall, the group had been water skiing near a friend’s house in Georgia.

In Atlanta, they taped a segment for the new show, “The Climate Code,” that will begin this fall on the Weather Channel. The episode will air Oct. 8. They will also be appearing on Good Morning America on Aug. 16 during their stop in New York.

By a stroke of luck, Wright made an appearance on “The Price Is Right,” where he won a kitchen island, and he will be on the show again in October. The group had attended a taping of the show, and Wright was called up as a contestant.

As far as their efforts to inform the public, “we’ve had a really good reception all over,” said Wright. “For better or for worse, high gas prices have made us pretty popular.” He also noted that environmental issues were brought to the fore this summer by Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as cover stories in magazines like Vanity Fair.

However, he said, “We’ve had our fair share of people coming up to us who have their ideas about how this is never going to work. Which is good to hear, I guess.”

“We’re not going to say vegetable oil is going to meet all our energy needs in the future,” he said. “What we’re trying to say is that there are alternatives out there, and we need to diversify our energy sources.”

THE IDEA FOR the Big Green Bus tour began last year with a group of Dartmouth grads who wanted to tour ultimate Frisbee tournaments during the summer, said Rubens, the only member of this year’s party who went along on last year’s ride. “Then, we had a bunch of engineers and a bunch of environmental students,” he said. They came up with the vegetable oil-powered bus as a cheap and environmentally friendly way to make the trip. Having settled on this novel mode of transportation, they decided to take the opportunity to educate the public as well.

This year, he said, more emphasis is being placed on environmental advocacy. The trip will also last two weeks longer and cover considerably more ground. The bus itself is also new and improved.

“Last year, we had no money,” he said. “This year, we bought a newer bus and put more money into it.”

Since December, the group has raised about $49,000 for the project, said Stephanie Lawrence, who managed much of the fund-raising. The money came from environmental foundations, friends and family, Dartmouth College, and, primarily, corporate sponsorships, she said.

“We wrote hundreds of letters, and we have about 15 corporate sponsors,” said Lawrence. “So we got a lot of rejection letters.” However, she said, many of the sponsors that got on board were quite enthusiastic. The Big Green Bus’ primary sponsor is the organic food company Newman’s Own.

The group met one of their current sponsors while passing through Ann Arbor, Mich., where they ran into a man whose family business was an industrial filter company, said Mike Saladik, another member of the party. The travelers had been experimenting with various filters for the pump that they use to transfer oil from restaurant oil dumpsters into the fuel tank, and the man offered them a number of filters, which they have been using since.

The oil has to be run through a series of filters because waste cooking oil often contains an abundance of grit, French fries and other detritus. It then must be heated to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit in order to bring it to the consistency of diesel fuel. To this end, the engine coolant is rerouted to bring it into close contact with the oil at several different points, Saladik said. Valves and valve splits were added, but the engine itself was left unaltered.

The bus runs on diesel fuel from its own 30-gallon gas tank for about the first five minutes in order to give the bus time to heat the vegetable oil. Then, on a console the team mounted on the dashboard, the driver flips a switch from “Diesel” to “Good Stuff,” and the engine begins pulling instead from the 120-gallon vegetable oil tank. This tank was salvaged off a big-rig truck and mounted on the bus by an engineering student.

WRIGHT SAID THE BUS has been getting slightly better mileage from the vegetable oil than from diesel fuel, running at eight to nine miles to the gallon “at an incredible top speed of about 60 miles per hour.” “A regular school bus like this usually gets about seven [miles per gallon],” he said.

“The guy who invented the diesel engine was a peanut farmer, and he wanted to make an engine that could run on peanut oil, so, essentially, it was invented to run on vegetable oil,” said Saladik. “The combustion property is essentially the same.”

What is not the same, said Wright, is the emission by-product. The emissions created by burning vegetable oil contain little to no sulfur, he said, "which makes them much cleaner than diesel fuel emissions." Although carbon dioxide is also emitted, as it is in the combustion of standard diesel fuel, the difference is that the carbon dioxide released was already present in the atmosphere and was captured by the plants that produced the oil. "So it's a closed-loop cycle, as opposed to releasing carbon dioxide that's been buried in the earth for millions of years," he said.

The bus’ internal electronics, including computers, cell phone chargers and a flat-screen television, are powered by golf cart batteries, which are charged by a solar panel mounted on the roof. The batteries can also power a set of heaters for the vegetable oil, but these only become necessary in the winter.

Next year, the bus will be passed on to another set of Dartmouth grads and students. Saladik said his crew would like to leave some money in a bank account for the next group. The bus could use a new transmission for highway driving, he said. He noted that a rising junior majoring in engineering at the school is already excited about heading up next year’s tour.