High school students gain insight into alternative fuels

They hear of trip in bus powered by vegetable oil

Anne Arundel

September 28, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The solution to reducing dependence on foreign fuel might be found in a restaurant's deep fryer, two Chesapeake High School graduates told environmental sciences classes there yesterday.

Former Pasadena residents Christo Corsaut and Danielle Stinson have taken a semester off from college to travel across the country in their RV, a converted school bus that has been modified to run primarily on waste vegetable oil. The pair have logged thousands of miles, with reduced particulate emissions thanks to recycled grease.

"We accepted the quest to inform as many people as we could," Corsaut said. "We realized it really was an opportunity to promote a healthier way to travel."

Corsaut and Stinson discovered vegetable oil technology while looking for a cheap, comfortable way to get to a festival in northern California.

The two 20-year-old psychology majors purchased a $3,000 school bus at an auction this year - the first vehicle they have owned. They and several of their friends at Texas A&M University brought it to Missouri-based Greasel Conversions Inc. over spring break to install the system's tanks and filter. They and their friends also joined the company as interns.

Stinson and Corsaut visited Ginny Barnicoat's three environmental science classes at Chesapeake yesterday. The teacher learned about the bus from Corsaut's younger sister, who is enrolled in Barnicoat's Advanced Placement class. The two college juniors showed the bus to nearly 30 of Barnicoat's AP students yesterday afternoon.

From the outside, little sets it apart from a traditional school vehicle. Inside, however, most of the seats have been removed and others moved into a banquette with a removable table. They also added two queen-sized platform beds and cabinets.

Installing the waste oil system cost about $3,500. Along with the cost of the bus and engine repairs, the pair say they have spent about $10,500.

Corsaut and Stinson opened the hood and showed how the filter and oil lines connect to the engine.

Conversion does not change the engine itself. Rudolf Diesel, who in the 1890s invented the engine that now bears his name, experimented with peanut and other vegetable oil fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Diesel engines now typically use petroleum-based fuels.

But vegetable oils are too viscous to flow easily through an engine. To combat this, Greasel adjusted the fuel lines so the engine starts using diesel fuel, warming the waste oil until it is thin enough to flow through the engine. Then, with a flip of a switch on the dashboard, it draws from the oil tanks.

Corsaut distinguished this method from "biodiesel" - vegetable oils chemically treated to be thinner. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, demand for biodiesel will be at least 6.5 million gallons in 2010 and 7.3 million gallons in 2020, but production costs and limited raw materials limit its widespread use.

Vegetable oils in general are a renewable resource. Someday farmers could use virgin oil from their crops to power their vehicles, Stinson said.

Such oil has the same combustibility as diesel fuel, so it has a similar fuel efficiency - eight to 10 miles per gallon for the school bus. The fuel also reduces emissions by 40 percent to 70 percent, according to Greasel. Petroleum-based fuels also require sulfur additives as lubricants, producing solid particulate wastes, Corsaut said. Vegetable oil fuel serves as its own lubricant.

The fuel also is nontoxic, so spilling some on the ground won't harm animals or plants. And instead of the noxious fumes associated with diesel engines, the bus fills with the aroma of cooking french fries.

The best oils come from Chinese food restaurants, the pair said. "They don't abuse it like fast food companies," Corsaut said, adding that the continuous cooking of french fries in hydrogenated oils results in a creamy oil that would be difficult to use.

Earlier in the day, the two went to a local restaurant and picked up 40 gallons of oil for free - about $60 to $70 worth of fuel the restaurants ordinarily have to pay to dispose of.

"We're not afraid to get our hands dirty or try new things," Stinson said.

Traveling around the country in a bus powered by alternative fuel fits the couple's personal philosophies about healthy, minimalist living. For example, nearly all of their belongings fit on the bus.

"The more stuff you own, the more room it takes up in your head," Corsaut said.

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