Running on vegetable oil

This month, USF alumnus Morgan Crawford drove up and down the East Coast on $20 worth of gasoline.

“I drove from North Carolina to New Hampshire, back to North Carolina, down to Florida and back to North Carolina with some side trips,” he said.

Like most vehicles, Crawford’s Mercedes takes oil – but it’s not Pennzoil or Castrol.

“We install a fuel system that processes and collects vegetable oil and pumps it into the fuel tank. We use that to power the diesel engine,” said Crawford. “We make a fuel out of vegetable oil called biodiesel. You can run that in any diesel engine without any modification.”

Crawford graduated with a degree in environmental science and worked for the Center for Transportation Research at USF. His company, called Veggie Power, can convert Mercedes, Volkswagens, Chevys, Dodges and Fords into energy-saving vehicles.

“I’ve also converted Mack trucks and a generator,” he said. In all, Crawford has converted 41 vehicles.

The price for a conversion is approximately $1,200 for small cars, such as Volkswagens and Mercedes, and $1,500 for pickup trucks.

In light of rising gas prices in response to Hurricane Katrina, some experts think alternatives like Crawford’s will garner more consideration from consumers than in the past.

“As the gasoline prices clearly indicate, there is not enough oil to go around,” said Lee Stefanakos, professor and director of USF’s Clean Energy Research Center. “I believe we have arrived at a point of no return (where) oil prices will continue moving upwards.”

But the cost of gasoline was not Crawford’s sole reason for marketing the system.

“Fuel prices weren’t that motivating of a factor. I hardly ever have any need for a car,” said Crawford, who makes good use of his bicycle on a daily basis. “It was more just to try (to) solve some social and environmental issues.”

In addition to the system, Crawford sells a filtration device so veggie car owners can fill their tanks with grease from restaurants, grocery stores and other food-processing facilities.

“You put a suction hose inside a grease vat, then you start the car on diesel and wait until the car heats up to switch over to (vegetable) oil,” Crawford said.

Admittedly, however, veggie cars are not perfect. According to Crawford, significant problems with the system include failing fuel injectors – which leads to a decrease in engine compression – and oil degradation after being mixed with diesel fuel.

Both Crawford and Reich agree that there is no time like the present to begin seriously considering fuel alternatives.

“We’re obviously getting to the end of our petroleum production capacity. We’re going to have to switch to another type of fuel economy for transportation,” Crawford said.

“I’m an advocate of doing something sooner rather than later,” Reich added. “If we’re serious about not relying on energy sources in other parts of the world, if we’re serious about trying to clean up some of the environmental impacts of burning all these hydrocarbons, we need something on a scale like the space program and put the national brain to work on getting this stuff out.”

Until alternative fuels become more widespread, both Crawford and Reich recommended making changes.

“If people want to get active, there’s plenty they can do,” Crawford said.

“Simple things can help. Make sure your tires are inflated properly. Make sure that your car has a recent and decent tune-up. It’s amazing how few people pay attention to that,” Reich said. “I think at $3 a gallon, maybe that will get folks’ attention.”