At Relish, a restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, used cooking oil is the necessary by-product of a day’s supply of fried calamari, and an expensive one. Because used oil is a serious threat to sewage systems—restaurants nationwide generate an unwieldy 3 billion pounds each year—restaurateurs are legally bound to have their grease hauled away safely, “at a major cost,” says Relish manager Ryan Armstrong.
That’s why Armstrong is thankful when Brent “Arrow” Baker stops by regularly to pump the unwanted oil into the fuel tank of his bus. Baker, director of B.I.O.Tour, a New York-based campaign promoting alternative fuel sources, is one of a growing number of Americans who have converted their vehicles to run on straight vegetable oil (SVO).
Burning cooking oil to generate energy is nothing new; when Rudolf Diesel introduced his namesake engine in 1900, it ran on peanut oil. Now, with ever-rising gas prices, Americans are starting to see SVO as a viable alternative again.
SVO is a type of biodiesel—alternative diesel fuel produced from renewable sources, such as vegetable oils and animal fats. Like other biodiesels, it burns cleaner and emits fewer pollutants than conventional fuel. What’s more, recycled grease is usually free for the taking. Once a car is converted, it’s as easy as parking outside a restaurant and collecting jugs of used oil. The only catch is that the oil needs to be heated to make it thin enough to use like conventional fuel—so conversion kits include a heating element. Usually, the car is warmed up on diesel fuel, then switched over to run on the hot SVO. Massachusetts-based Greasecar is one of several companies that convert diesel engines to run on SVO, and do-it-yourself kits start at around $800.
Frybrid pioneers claim their converted cars perform no differently from conventional cars; some even swear the ride is smoother. But drive behind them, and you’ll smell the most obvious difference: instead of diesel fumes, the aroma of French fries or falafel.