This article was written by Sarah Rich in March 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
What do you get when you cross hybrid transportation with local economic support and resource reuse? Frybrid. A small company in Seattle has developed a simple system for running any diesel automobile on vegetable oil discarded from the grease traps of restaurants. This is not biodiesel -- in which vegetable oil gets transformed into a highly viscous substance through transesterification; this is what many people call "straight vegetable oil" or "waste vegetable oil" (SVO/WVO) -- a direct line from the kitchen to the car.
In order to take advantage of this immediate and abundant fuel source, the car at the receiving end needs to be properly equipped to heat (and sometimes filter) the otherwise thick oil. That's Frybrid's specialty. They offer custom mods, DIY kits, and online instructions to get your diesel vehicle grease-ready. I went to visit Chris Goodwin and Forest Gregg of Frybrid in their shop in Seattle's Capitol Hill to get a tour of the conversion process and some inside info on the advantages of fryer fuel and the growth of the VO user community.
At first glance, you wouldn't know this place from the many other European auto repair shops around the neighborhood. A couple of old Mercedes sit parked on the concrete floor, a new VW Jetta wagon hovers overhead on the lift, tools and parts are strewn about (and a stout pitbull greets me at the door). But look more closely and you see stacked restaurant-style shortening containers, an old 25-gallon residential water heating cylinder, and a giant plastic storage container with a hose and a pump attached -- all components for filtering and distributing veggie oil. Over the past two years, Chris Goodwin Motorsport has almost completely stopped performing regular auto repairs as VO demand takes over their time. Chris estimates that they've converted around 250 cars, as well as selling kits to people all over the country and in parts of western Europe.
So how does a car run on VO? Basically, the car needs a storage tank to contain the vegetable oil, a mechanism for heating the oil until it's viscous enough to run through the fuel lines, and a temperature sensor for monitoring what's going on in the car. All VO cars must be started on diesel or biodiesel, which doesn't need to be preheated. Once the veggie oil reaches 160F degrees (Chris estimates that this takes between 1.5 and 5 miles of driving), a computerized switch transfers the flow from the diesel tank to the veggie oil tank and you're running on pure grease until you turn the car off. Just before turning it off, another switch purges the veggie oil from the lines and restocks them with diesel/biodiesel so that the next time you turn the key, the cold car can start easily. The Frybrid website has a detailed explanation of the ingredients and steps required to convert a car. They make their system foolproof by installing indicator lights and override switches in the dash that ensure that the transfer back and forth occurs at the proper time, and that you don't clog your fuel lines with french fry oil. They estimate that their DIY kit, which runs about $1400, can be installed in a weekend, and Chris tells me that they've never met a diesel car they couldn't convert.
Once this process is complete, the car can run on vegetable oil from any source forever. This is one of the huge advantages over a biodiesel vehicle. Whereas biodiesel has to be carefully made with exact ratios according to the quality and pH of the specific batch of oil (and using some dangerous chemicals), a VO car can take anything as long as the food particulates and water have been filtered out (although word on the street is that Japanese restaurants have the gold of grease). This is not only more convenient, it's much cheaper. Most restaurants have to pay renderers to come haul away their waste grease, which means that they're generally more than happy to have someone take it away. It's mutually beneficial and free.
Salvaging and reusing oil that would otherwise be wasted from nearby eateries reveals another VO advantage over biodiesel. As biodiesel scales up, the industry is beginning to face criticism and concern over the impact of mass-producing biofuel from virgin agricultural resources. A lot of biodiesel is made from corn, soy and cottonseed, all of which are incredibly pesticide intensive and often highly genetically modified crops. The farming practices involved in cultivating these are, themselves, quite energy-intensive, as well as potentially destructive to biodiversity and groundwater. Then there is the transport of biofuels across the country or even across the world (Chris told me that a Washington biodiesel consumer found that it was cheaper to have biofuel ingredients shipped from Malaysia than to source them locally).
Plenty of sustainability advocates have voiced strong response to the booming biofuels industry this past year or so. Worldwatch Institute just released a new book entitled Biofuels for Transport, which offers "a unique global assessment of the potential opportunities and risks of the large-scale production of biofuels, [and] demystifies complex questions and concerns, such as the ‘food v. fuel’ debate" (the controversy over using food crops to run our vehicles). This is a debate in which Lester Brown has been a strong voice, calling for conservation and caution around throwing huge investment capital into agriculturally-intensive fuel crops.
This plays right into the advantage of WVO over SVO -- or using waste grease instead of fresh oil. By taking the local byproducts of our food supply as fuel, we close a loop that saves community restaurants some money and keeps us fueled up without fueling the potential destruction of industrial agriculture. Chris explains to me that restaurant grease really isn't a "waste" product; in other words, when it leaves the fryer, it hasn't lost all utility. Renderers call it "waste" so that restaurants will pay them for the service of hauling it away, but this substance actually becomes "yellow grease" and goes on to have another lifetime in animal feed and even cosmetic products (a disgusting reality that may warrant some investigation here in the future). This means that renderers make money twice on the deal -- they get paid to take it off restauranteurs' hands and paid again to have it taken off theirs. No wonder I'm told they're becoming some of the strongest opponents of WVO as fuel.
People often ask, though, if waste grease has a lower quality or the potential to clog up the car's system with impurities. When properly filtered, this is not a problem. At Frybrid, a coop of seven people collects, filters and shares a supply of Seattle's culinary backwash. In a 25-gallon water heater they heat the oil up until particulates and water sink to the bottom of the tank. Those are drained off the bottom and the good oil gets siphoned out to the storage tank, which they can access from a pump on the street just like a gas station. The drained materials go through the heating and filtering process repeatedly until all the usable fuel has been rendered.
To make it even easier, Frybrid will also add a built-in filter to converted vehicles so that you can literally pull up to your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and pour from their trap into your car. The heating and filtering becomes part of the internal process. Chris shared a great story of a family of five who asked to have a 21-ton, 40' luxury motor home converted to veggie oil. He did a custom conversion that included a 140 gallon clean tank, and a 70 gallon dewatering and filtering tank, as well as a 50' hose reel and pump to grab grease on the go, allowing mobile filtration of up to 140 gallons of waste oil per day. He reports that the family drove coast-to-coast over three months in the 6MPG mobile mansion, and at the end they'd traveled over 3,500 miles and spent just $47 on diesel. The family kept their own online diary of the journey (what they call a "wok-umentary" about their road trip running on "the fat of America") and they appear to be planning another epic trek this coming summer.
In addition to individual conversions, Frybrid has been branching into some deals with other companies to get their fleets running on WVO. He tells me about a start-up called Earth Friendly Moving in Southern California that's offering a new moving service geared towards elevating convenience and reducing waste in the home and office moving process. This is actually a very cool company in itself, employing a bit of service design to provide people with the supplies, storage and mobility they need to move without having to purchase and dispose of all kinds of packing supplies. They rent reusable boxes, delivery pallets made of recycled diapers, and packing peanuts made from recycled paper sludge and organic compounds. When you're finished unpacking, they pick up the goods and rent them to the next customer. Now they're going to get their moving trucks running on grease thanks to a deal with Frybrid, edging even closer to being a zero-waste company.
Having just returned from India, I couldn't help but think, as I stood in Frybrid's shop, about the obvious applicability of this model in a place like Delhi, where most vehicles run on diesel and much food is fried, pollution is terrible and low-cost or free fuel would obviously be make a huge difference to people who live on little. Because a big part of Frybrid's activity and community interface happens online, I asked Chris about what kind of interest has been demonstrated by internet forum participants from developing urban areas towards his DIY kits. He said that both India and Brazil have plenty of buzz going around biofuels (as has been demonstrated, of course, with the recent signing of the biofuels pact between the US and Brazil), but expressed concern about sending kits to people who might knock off his design and mass manufacture them at a lower cost for their region, with no profit or recognition coming back to Frybrid. The obvious question that arises from a response like this is: how do you balance wanting credit and payment on an original design against the desire to see a good, worldchanging idea spread and become accessible to more people worldwide?
And the obvious answer, it seems, would be a Creative Commons Developing Nations License, which would allow Chris to freely share his innovative idea with people in developing nations while retaining the copyright in places where he can feasibly make a living off of selling his kits and custom jobs. I have no idea whether the in-car conversion would translate in a place like Delhi or Sao Paulo, Lagos or Beijiing, but it seems like making the plans available for lowering the cost and pollutant load of transportation -- much like the Open Architecture Network makes building plans available to lower the burden of developing appropriate, low-cost housing -- could turn into an excellent opportunity for reexamining overlooked local resources and turning them into fuel for a sustainable future.
Frybrid: How to Run Your Car on Grease is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
I can't wait for such a car. It would be amazing to have one such car. It will not only save fuel but will also be financially advantageous for humans.