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Precision Auto In the News

BY CINDY FORREST
PHOTO BY PIERFRANCESO BACCARO

Felipe Cuardra has converted as Mercedes to run on vegetable oil.

Frank Hardalo is an organic goat farmer by trade but it is his recent move to a car powered by vegetable oil that fuels his pride in the contribution he is making to the environment. "It makes me feel good about myself every time I use it," said Hardalo.
These days, with everybody looking for a way to save money at the pump, one answer may be to forget the gas station and go directly to a restaurant. Grease leftover from the deep fryers, used in almost every type of restaurant, can be used as "free" fuel for cars with the equipment to handle it. Hardalo now has that equipment and restaurant owners are giving him, and others like him, their used grease at no cost. Felipe Cuardra has converted as Mercedes to run on vegetable oil.

Giving up the second-hand grease for use in powering automobiles is a win-win-win situation for the environment, the drivers and the restaurateurs. The law requires used grease from restaurants to be disposed of by very specific means and most owners meet the requirements by paying "renderers" to pick it up and recycle it for use by manufacturers that use it to make soap, cosmetics and pet food.

Once source for Hardalo is the Canyon Creek Grill in Frenchtown, where owner Mike Hiras accumulates 75-85 pounds of used oil a week. That translates into 7-10 gallons of car fuel for Hardalo. Prior to this arrangement, Hiras said he stored the fat in two 50-gallon drums and when they were filled, he called for pick-up, which cost him about $50. Now he's more than happy to give it away to Hardalo.

"I think it's a good thing. More people should do it if they can," he said.

Living in Morristown and commuting the 80 roundtrip miles every day to Featherbed Farms where he raises goats in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, Hardalo, 44, was feeling like a hypocrite knowing the fuel he was burning hurt the planet. According to Hardalo, the fumes emitted by his new grease car are carbon-neutral, meaning it won't contribute to global warming. In contrast, one gallon of diesel fuel sends over 22 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Hardalo can't recall where he heard about the vegetable oil fuel option, but he Googled it on the Internet and came up with the name of the company, Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems. After researching the process, he decided to go ahead. "I ordered a kit online and had in four days," said Hardalo.

The kit costs about $900 and the cost of installation is about another $400. At those prices and the distance he drives every day, Hardalo expects that it will only take 14 months to recoup his investment.

The next step, since the vegetable system can only be used in cars with diesel engines, was to buy a car. Hardalo chose a 23-year-old Mercedes Benz station wagon, then he found an installer.

Felipe Cuadra, owner of Precision Auto Center on Route 46 in Denville, and his staff, Christopher Ball and John Leonard, took on the challenge. Cuardra, who is also an environmentalist, explained the process in simple terms.

"The car always gets started using the diesel fuel, then there is a temperature gauge that we installed and when that reads 120 degrees, you just push a button and the engine switches over to the vegetable oil tank," he said. The hotter the engine, the more efficient the fuel will be."

According to Cuadra, to keep the fuel at the optimum temperature, he installed a secondary heater to keep the oil hot during winter months.

With full tanks of both diesel fuel and veggie oil, Hardalo estimates that he can run his car for 850 miles. And although he can purchase clean oil from Costco for $1.90 a gallon, he has chosen a less expensive option but more complicated option. When using waste oil from restaurants, he must first filter it through a cloth strainer, in order to remove bread crumbs and other solids. Then the fuel has to be thinned, which is done during the warming up period while the car is running under diesel power, to prevent engine clogging.

Before turning off the ignition, the vegetable oil has to be flushed back into the tank. This is easily accomplished by holding down a dashboard-installed button for 30 seconds to complete the purge process, to flush veggie oil back to its tank.

The invention process

The history of Greasecar has just begun. It started when founder Justin Carven became involved in bio-fuels at Hampshire College in 1998 and soon discovered the work of Carl Bielenberg, founder of the Better World Workshop, a technology group working in western Africa. With the goal of empowering the people of rural Africa - the Better World Workshop had developed a hand-operated seed press, producing oil for cooking or soap. But what piqued Justin's interest was that Bielenberg, a trained engineer ware of the diesel engine's vegetarian roots, had developed a system for running diesel generators on vegetable oil.

The difference between Bielenberg's success and the previous failures of others was the inclusion of a coolant-heated fuel filter, which allowed the vegetable oil to flow freely through the filter element in lower ambient temperatures. Though this breakthrough had wider - even global - implications, it also carried the immediate benefit of providing affordable fuel for diesel generators.

Bielenberg, upon his return to the States, performed the same conversion at Hampshire College on a worn-out tractor - an Allis Chalmers G - that got a new lease on a life by going vegetarian.

Fascinated by Bielenberg's research, Carven worked with a team of students over the next two months to replace the tractor's engine and modify the fuel system, employing Bielenberg's design but fabricating the parts at the Lemelson Assistive Technology Design Center at Hampshire College.

In the spring of 1999, the students trucked the tractor down to Washington, DC, for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance Annual Presentation at the Smithsonian Institution. The tractor began to work at the Farm Center upon its return.

Still, Carven realized there was a big difference between running a tractor off vegetable oil and powering an automobile with vegetable oil. With $400 and another small grant from the Lemelson Foundation, Carven bought an old diesel-powered Quantum car and set about making the modifications necessary to run it off of the alternative fuel.

The first Greasecar fuel tank was a half-gallon steel rectangle with a copper coil soldered inside. Brass fittings on the outside allowed for connection to the coolant circuit. Carven mounted it to an engine bay, then started the engine and waited. The coils got hot. Carven turned the valve and took a few precautionary steps back.

Nothing happened, which is exactly what was supposed to happen. The engine grew a little quieter, maybe, and the smell of cooking oil grew stronger, but the Quantum idled happily away. Carven took some victory laps around campus - enough victory laps to near run out of vegetable oil - then switched back to diesel.

And although Carven still had some work to do to make the application practical in the real world - the rest, as they say, is history.

For Hardalo it is a way of life that allows him to live in harmony with nature. Another project he plans to take on is the installation of wind turbines on his organic farm near Flemington. Hardalo is used to hard work and opting to use second-hand grease from local eateries to power this car is no exception. He warns, "the free fuel from restaurants is not for the light of heart, it takes a lot of time and energy to pick it up, strain and get it prepared to burn as fuel." But for him and a growing number of people fed up with ever rising pump prices it's a great option. To date the company says it has sold 2,100 kits.

As for performance, "The car runs smoother and there is no smoke," said Hardalo, "but it has slightly less pep and sometimes it smells like French fries when I drive down the road!"

- Neighbor News  May 17. 2006