Richards does, however, recognize the oil New Leaf is collecting as a commodity that veggie car drivers and collection companies use as well.
“Obviously, there’s a limited amount of oil in San Diego, and it’s hard to say how many people are out there using vegetable oil in their cars,” he says. “So it’s hard for me to answer that question [of] if there’s going to be a competition between us and them or what. Most of our competition is with existing businesses.”
While New Leaf seeks to provide biodiesel, Patrzalek and his fellow greasel drivers use only vegetable oil, not biodiesel. Biodiesel, while made from waste vegetable oil, is an entirely different form of alternative fuel.
Waste oil, Zauscher and her colleague Justin Klein explain, is too thick to run through a regular diesel engine. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is waste oil that has been chemically treated to remove glycerol — a sugar alcohol that acts as a thickening agent — and is thin enough to be used in unmodified diesel cars.
“When you convert to biodiesel, the thickness of it decreases, so you can run it in a regular diesel engine without modifications,” says Klein. “If you’re just running regular vegetable oil, you have to make modifications to heat it up before it can go into the engine.”
“That’s kind of why biodiesel is better because you don’t have to convert your car,” says Zauscher, who runs her Volkswagen Jetta on biodiesel. “[But] there’s obviously benefits to converting your car, because you can just get the waste vegetable oil from restaurants and not have to make biodiesel…”
The Biofuel Action and Awareness Network decided to promote the use of biodiesel on campus as opposed to other fuels for several reasons, which Zauscher outlines.
“The university would never use vegetable oil in their fleet, but we are called Biofuel Awareness and Action Network because we do want to encourage all biofuels, including waste vegetable oil,” she says. “It seemed more logical that people would be less scared of [using] biodiesel as opposed to waste vegetable oil, because biodiesel is more similar to diesel than waste vegetable oil is, and biodiesel doesn’t require modifications to the vehicle.”
Another advantage of biodiesel over vegetable oil is a legal one. While veggie oil conversion kits are sold all over the United States, the process is still illegal and has not been approved (or disapproved) by the Environmental Protection Agency. A spokesman for the agency told Mary Pickels of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that vegetable oil is “flammable under certain conditions” and points out the existence of laws “against tampering with vehicles that alter their emissions.” In addition, the conversion will definitely void any warranties a vehicle might have, though it is not an issue with the older-model Mercedes popular with veggie car drivers — their warranties have likely expired years ago. With biodiesel, few to no modifications are required, a definite advantage over vegetable oil.
Though not as cost-effective as vegetable oil or as simple to harvest, it is possible to make biodiesel oneself. However, while it requires only a few ingredients, the process is laborious and demands a considerable amount of know-how. It requires the use of several harmful chemicals, including sodium hydroxide (lye) and methanol, a petroleum-based alcohol, both of which demand safety precautions. Both Zauscher and Klein, along with other members of their group, are currently testing their homemade biodiesel in small amounts.
Some, however, are skeptical about the impact biodiesel will have. According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel produces approximately 50 percent fewer smog-causing emissions than regular diesel, but some have found problems associated with its use. David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University in New York, is one of biodiesel’s biggest critics.
“Including all the inputs, [producing] biodiesel using soybeans…takes 53 percent more fossil energy to produce a gallon of biodiesel than the production of a gallon of diesel,” he writes via email from New York. “Thus, biodiesel is a major contributor to global warming. We use soybeans for biodiesel production because it is the best, because we do not have to use nitrogen fertilizer with soybean production. Nitrogen fertilizer for rapeseed or canola production requires about 33 percent more fossil energy.”
Connor, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with those who are suspicious of biodiesel and other alternative fuels.
“In my view, we need to explore, and not shoot down, multiple energy options, from biodiesel to vegetable oil to ethanol to hydrogen cars and on and on,” he writes. “When you have choices and competition, prices go down. When you have exorbitant demand and limited choices, you have what we have now and will continue to have: high prices.”
“I’ve never felt comfortable buying gas,” says Patrzalek. “I’ve spent the past 15 years commuting to work by bike, so I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to really rely on internal combustion, because I feel like a sucker buying gas.”
For him and for Connor, vegetable oil was the logical choice.
Still, veggie car drivers have a lot to face, skepticism perhaps being the largest obstacle in their path.
“I’ve been at Henry’s and had one of the clerks give me crap for not bringing in my own bags, and I just said, ‘I have a veggie car outside,’ and they said, ‘No, you don’t. You can’t do that,’ ” Patrzalek says. “And I backed up my car almost to the door, and you can smell it when it’s burning, and they still didn’t believe me.”
“The funny thing is I got so many people calling and asking questions about it, going on and on, but still, I wasn’t able to sell a car,” he continues. “I don’t know. They’re just not ready for change. They’re so conditioned to go to the fuel pump for it, and when you have something new like this, they maybe don’t feel comfortable about it or they don’t believe it. It sounds too good to be true.”
According to Patrzalek, it’s not.
“It just takes a bit of tenacity,” he says, “that’s it.”
— Rosa Jurjevics