High gas prices, the threat of climate change, and new technology have spurred increased looks at alternative fuels, especially hybrids, electric cars and biodiesels. But a community in Charlotte has opted for a less conventional, do-it-yourself solution—they run their fleet on used vegetable oil from area restaurants.
Andrew Duggan installed a second fuel tank for waste vegetable oil fuel in the trunk of his 1981 Mercedes Benz 240D. It’s different than biodiesel, which is a chemical mix of organic materials that goes directly into a diesel tank. Insulation covers the tank, to aid in heating the oil to a viscosity equal to diesel. At that point, the engine can burn it. Duggan starts the car on diesel, and pushes a button to switch to vegetable oil, once it has reached the proper temperature (about 100 degrees, he says).
Duggan’s Mercedes. He has installed eight or nine waste vegetable oil systems in Charlotte, and estimates roughly two dozen people in town use these vehicles.
Andrew “Opie” Wilson processes his own fuel, and stores it in these three tanks. The top left tank feeds into a centrifuge, which spins dirty oil, heating it and separating animal fats, chicken parts, or any other foreign substance that may have been introduced when restaurants cooked with it.
Wilson loads a pump and empty barrel onto his diesel Ford F350. The truck has duel fuel tanks and can hold 70 gallons of vegetable oil and drive 800 miles without refueling.
Driving on vegetable oil takes effort. Duggan says people usually band together in small groups to collect, filter, and store the fuel. And, they have to find restaurants where they can pick up oil. Wilson has his own set up, and collects from two restaurants. Here, he prepares to pump about 70 gallons from a drum at Tiber Creek Pub in South End. The pub had just repaved its parking lot, so Wilson parked outside and uncoiled an extension cord all the way across the empty, drying lot, for electricity to operate the pump.
When unheated, the vegetable oil can dry into a soapy consistency. Duggan holds some he picked off the rim of his fuel intake.
Duggan and Wilson both say the quality of the oil varies from restaurant to restaurant. Wilson says the Harvest Moon Grille in Uptown’s oil is like “candy” for his truck. He sticks his hand into a recently collected batch.