The Magic Schoolbus

by Nelson Harvey

Piling into a bus with a bunch of friends and hitting the road is a quintessential American fantasy, particulary for young and restless college students. But with gas prices approaching $3 a gallon and fuel economy standards stagnant, can young environmentalists enjoy the freedom of the road without excessively damaging their wallets or the planet?

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For 11 students at Dartmouth College, the answer appears to be yes. The students are wrapping up an 11 week tour of the U.S. in “The Big Green Bus,” an old schoolbus converted to run on Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) that they collect at restaurants along their route. I chatted with them last Sunday, when they stopped in NYC en route to Hanover, New Hampshire, for the start of school.

The bus was converted with grant money from sponsors, and most of their fuel is free, making the journey considerably less expensive than a petro-powered trip. At each stop, they hold events to spread the gospel about biofuels and show off their custom fueling system. The system takes waste vegetable oil from restaurants and uses a small, gas powered pump to run it through a custom onboard filtration system, which uses pillowcases and other filters to drain the largest impurities out of the oil before it is piped into a 120 gallon tank near the rear of the vehicle. The bus starts up and stops on petroleum diesel, and WVO is routed through lines near the engine to warm it up and lower its vicosity. The driver can switch from diesel to WVO manually at any time.

The journey has been far from problem free; mechanical glitches, mostly caused by low quality fuel, have plagued the students throughout the summer. Lucas, the student who completed the $7000 conversion of the bus, said they look for oil that is golden brown and contains little water, but they’ve had problems with a few sub-par batches.

 

The interior of the bus, and the filtration system

When I saw, them, their injection pump had recently failed, and leaky fuel lines have also been an issue. They once filled the bus with oil from McDonalds, but a chemical de-greaser that the restaurant uses in its fryers sparked a breakdown. Setbacks notwithstanding, the WVO is about as efficienct as diesel fuel when the system is running well.

But it seems likely that high performance was never the chief objective of the Green Bus project. And despite the purported environmental benefits of WVO over diesel, the value of the project isn’t chiefly about environmental impact either. Like any demonstration effort, the real payoff is educational. Making biofuel commonplace and working out the kinks will require continuing to spread the word, telling as many people as we can that another fuel is possible.

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