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For fuel economy, grease is the word

Dave Dunham '03 gets ready to fill the tank of his 1998 diesel Volkswagen Beetle with vegetable oil.

Dave Dunham was flipping channels in his Bethlehem apartment sometime in the winter of 2002 when a Rabbit got him thinking about conversion.

A diesel Volkswagen Rabbit truck, that is, and it wasn't a spiritual conversion he was mulling--it was the idea of converting his own diesel Volkswagen Golf into a "greasecar" running on used cooking oil.

This wasn't a case of a Lehigh engineering genius putting his schooling to work; Dunham double-majored in music performance and information systems. And it wasn't an ecological epiphany about the evils of fossil fuels; the technology's sustainability is "nice, but it's not a motivating factor for me," he says.

It's about being a tinkerer--a very, very economical tinkerer.

"To me the 'free' factor is huge," Dunham says. "I'm not an environmentalist, I'm just incredibly cheap."

A fast-growing movement

In fact, "it has more to do with money than anything else" for many of the thousands of people nationwide who hoard jugs of used vegetable oil as fuel, says Josh Tickell of Venice, Calif., whose book From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank helped convince Dunham to go greasy.

"Gasoline is getting more expensive because oil production is declining worldwide ... as demand actually continues to grow," Tickell says. "The gap between demand and supply is the gap in which new products enter the market. That's exactly what's happening: We have more demand than we have supply, and we've got a superior series of products that are going to be seen on the market."

And they're being seen, indeed. Dunham was featured in an Oct. 27 New York Times article about the small-but-growing community of people using vegetable oil to get around. They've already gotten around quite well in cyberspace: Sites such as www.greasecar.com, from which Dunham bought his conversion kit, as well as Greasel.comand Biofuel.ca are pushing the movement ever forward on a diner-scented cloud.

After seeing the television news segment about "greasecars" and then reading Tickell's book, Dunham went ahead and converted his Golf. The Pocono Pines, Pa., native is handy in other ways--at the time, he was polishing his alto saxophone skills with adjunct professor Dave Riekenberg and taking guitar lessons with Richard Metzger. But he's good with cars, too.

"My very first car was a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel. When I was 17, I hit a deer with it ... We knew somebody who had a junk car exactly like mine, so I took it apart and put my car back together. That launched an amateur driveway mechanic kind of thing," Dunham says. "But even for someone who's not mechanically minded, it's pretty easy to install."

Vegetable oil congeals when it's cold, so greasecars have vegetable-oil systems side-by-side with diesel. The diesel starts the car and warms it up, and then the driver can switch over to the oil. Dunham said from the first time he tried it, he discerned no difference in his car's performanceÑexcept for the odor of French fries emanating from his tail pipe.

"The only way you'd know it was a greasecar is that I have stickers on the back saying so," Dunham says. "A lot of people think it's some kind of joke. I don't know why it would be funny."

Waste oil to fuel

Among his first sources of oil was Tulum, a small Mexican restaurant on West Morton Street near campus. "Being in Bethlehem, the first natural question was, 'You must be an engineering major?' People were surprised to hear I was music and information systems, pretty much the other side of the spectrum from the engineers," Dunham recalls. "But all the engineers got a kick out of it, too."

Tulum owner Walt Diller says he was momentarily flummoxed when the stranger walked in asking to take his waste oil, for which most restaurants pay disposal fees.

"It was the first time I'd heard of it, and I thought it was awesome," Diller says. "It was simple. He dropped us off the empty containers and we would fill them for him, and he'd come and get them every other week or so"--up to 20 gallons at a time.

About six months before Dunham's January 2003 graduation, he and his girlfriend moved to Philadelphia so she could attend school there. That left him with a long commute for his final semester, but he was paying almost nothing for fuel--just a pittance for a little diesel every now and then. A Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia became one of his primary fuel sources, after a brief language-barrier skirmish--a Chinese friend wrote him a note which paved the way for smooth grease-fueled sailing. After graduation, he bought a 1998 diesel Volkswagen Beetle and converted it, too.

Now 24, living in Fayetteville, Ark., and working as a Web applications developer, Dunham says that Arkansans seem to take his requests in stride even though most of the nation's greasecar activity is concentrated along the coasts. "I pretty much get the same reaction--every restaurant throws out so much grease every day. I get it from only one restaurant and I have more than I know what to do with."

60,000 grease miles and counting

Of course, Dunham has faced some skepticism, even from those close to him. In the early 1970s, his grandfather was involved in efforts to burn methane seeping from landfills in order to generate electricity--a technology that never went into widespread use because of fluctuations in the amount and quality of the gas.

When Dunham told his grandfather about the greasecar, "he just kind of dismissed it as, 'Yeah, don't tell it to me--before you were born, we were doing this kind of thing and it didn't work,'" he recalls. "He said, 'You can't get something for nothing in this world,' that kind of thing."

But now that Dunham has "put about 60,000 grease miles under my belt," even granddad is taking notice. Several friends have talked about converting their vehicles into greasecars. "There is a lot of interest, and the longer I do it, the more legitimacy it gives people I know."

Certainly, some people use greasecars as an eco-message. For example, a group of San Francisco-area musicians last fall dubbed their grease-fueled tour bus the "VoteMobile" and embarked on a nationwide voter-registration concert tour, granting free admission to anyone who'd bring a gallon of vegetable oil.

But politics aside, Tickell says greasecars, along with the growing use of biodiesel--a fuel produced by a chemical process which removes glycerin from vegetable oil, and which can be used in any diesel vehicle without conversion--mark a transportation revolution "akin to the horse being replaced with the car.

"There are thousands of people across the country ... and it's just a matter of time before people catch on that they don't have to be beholden to large oil companies anymore," he says. "It's basically spreading like wildfire."

The tradition continues even at Tulum, where Diller was approached by another greasecar owner--also named Dave, incidentally--who now takes the eatery's oil.

At least within this little restaurant, it's a trend.

--Josh Richman

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2005

Posted on Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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