French fries help fuel local Ford
Durangoan converts diesel engine to run on used fryer grease

Odin Thunstrom, left, of American Made Automotive, and truck owner Craig Holliday pose Tuesday in front of the Ford diesel that Holliday converted to run on fryer grease with the help of Thunstrom. The frenchfry- grease powered truck gets 15 miles to the gallon./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

On a freezing morning, Craig Holliday is hovering under the hood of his white Ford pickup, watching the same vegetable oil that his father used to fry a Thanksgiving turkey course through the tubes leading to his diesel engine. The faint odor of diesel fuel lingers in the air until the truck warms up – and then it smells like McDonalds. Or, for that matter, any of your favorite greasy, fast-food restaurants.

After a few minutes, Holliday, his mechanic, Odin Thunstrom, and I climb into the double-cab and drive off on the snow-packed roads in north Durango. When we narrowly avert a crash with a snowplow, Holliday turns off the main drag and begins cruising the alleys a block away. He’s looking for the coveted black drum barrels behind restaurants. Inside the barrels is, literally, how Holliday gets around town.

The truck is full with the strained oil from his father’s turkey, so Holliday doesn’t stop and take out the 12-volt pump he uses to extract the discarded fat. But we still bumble down the alleys while the truck bounces and rocks as though it’s burping – because it sort of is. Holliday and Thunstrom tell me there is air in the fuel lines, creating anything but a smooth ride right now. But once the air works its way out, the truck runs smoothly, with as much power and panache as a diesel can have, even though it was converted recently to a more environmental and economical means of transportation.

Just two weeks ago, Thunstrom finished installing a conversion kit in the 1991 F-350 that Holliday bought specifically for this project. The kit was $700, which Holliday bought off the Internet. The labor was an extra $800. Thunstrom estimates that if Holliday drives about 20,000 miles a year, getting 15 miles per gallon, he’s likely to save about $2,300 a year in gas.

“That means I get my money back in what I paid for the kit,” says Holliday, a former high-school-teacher-turned-contractor.

More importantly, though, Holliday says he achieves the goal of being less dependent on foreign oil sources and, hopefully, arousing local interest about alternative fuel solutions.

The politics of vegetable oil

Using vegetable oil as an alternative fuel source is hardly a new idea. But it is a newly popular idea. In 1900, German mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel invented the engine that bears his name. He built it to run on peanut oil, all the while envisioning a world of farmers growing their own fuel. Peanut oil as gas never took off the way Diesel hoped it would. But in subsequent years after his suspicious death, Diesel’s alternative fuel proposal was much more accepted and implemented in Europe than in the United States.

Over the years, Europeans realized the benefits of vegetable oil: it is biodegradable, nontoxic and derived from a renewable resource. It also reportedly improves gas mileage by more than 3 percent and reduces smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by 75 percent. Today, various energy organizations report that there are about 2,000 biodiesel pumping stations throughout Europe. Biodiesel is a mixture of vegetable oil, alcohol and catalyst. Just like other forms of petroleum, it is sold by the gallon from pumps and can be poured straight into the fuel tank of any diesel vehicle.

While Holliday is attracted to the efficiency of getting his oil free and saving what could be thousands of dollars on gas, he’s more engrossed in the idea of getting Americans to stop relying on vanishing fossil fuel resources from foreign countries.

Earlier this year as the United States invaded Iraq, Holliday said he paid especially close attention to the country’s intentions – however masked they might have been. He is more inclined to believe that the war is rooted more in protecting oil sources than banishing terrorism or securing freedom. Holliday says his older brother serves in the U.S. Army and is on the waiting list to be sent to Iraq.

“He’ll be going over there to fight for our oil,” Holliday says. “All these guys are giving their lives for oil. We are blowing up Iraqis and Americans just to make sure we have enough oil for gas. For me, it’s just wrong.”

Holliday felt compelled to make a political statement. He began researching the fuel alternative in the spring, seeking out publications and demonstrations, like the one he saw at the Earth Day celebration at the Smiley Building. At the event, Holliday met

Thunstrom stands behind the vegetable oil converter he installed in Holliday’s truck. The kit cost $700 on the Internet./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Charris Ford, a well-known Telluride resident who has vociferously espoused the benefits and necessity of biodiesel fuel. Calling himself the “Granola Ayatollah of Canola,” in the past couple of years Ford has been featured in numerous publications, shedding light on the idea. Ford’s enthusiasm inspired Holliday, he says. But still, the gnawing feeling of fighting a war for oil – which Holliday believes the invasion of Iraq is about – propelled him to “walk the talk.”

“My inspiration is more Ghandi than Charris,” Holliday says.

The finer points of biodiesel

Though he doesn’t expect to instigate a one-man insurrection against petroleum fuel, Holliday says his project has piqued the interest of friends and family.

“Everyone loves it; they think it’s funny,” he explains.

His father, he says, got a big kick out of sending Holliday five gallons of turkey-soiled vegetable oil from Ohio to Durango.

“He laughed.”

More laughable, Holliday says, is4

his frequent trips to the grocery store to buy panty hose. He uses them to strain the food particles from the used cooking oil he gets from local restaurants.

“I guess it’s kind of funny to see me standing in line at Albertsons holding a bunch of panty hose,” he laughs.

Does he prefer a color?

“Yeah, I like black,” he deadpans.

Those who don’t laugh, though, are skeptical, convinced that using oil as gas really won’t work. Or that if it does, once-powerful truck engines will only sputter around town at the sluggish pace of someone who ate too many of the donuts fried in that very grease.

Because there aren’t any biodiesel pumps in Durango, Holliday still must rely on petroleum. His truck has two gas tanks: One filled with petroleum; the other with recycled vegetable oil. To heat the oil, Holliday first starts the truck with diesel fuel and runs on that for about five minutes. Meanwhile, the heater in the vegetable oil tank warms it, making it viscous enough to work through the engine. When it’s warm, he switches to that tank, which he drives on primarily. Once he stops driving, Holliday switches back to the diesel fuel, using it to clean the gas lines so the oil doesn’t solidify. In spite of the routine, Holliday isn’t concerned that he has set himself up for a series of irremediable mechanical problems.

Thunstrom is right by his side doing the fine-tuning. For him, Holliday’s ambition also may offer him a business windfall. Now that he’s converted an engine, Thunstrom is confident he can assemble his own kit from parts available in town, and then cut the labor time from two days to eight hours.

As American as you can get

Holliday says he has contacted local oil companies about procuring and selling biodiesel at the gas stations. He said he hasn’t heard any promises, but he’s been greeted with open-minded people who said they would consider it. Meanwhile, Holliday says his next challenge is educating locals. He wants to start giving presentations at schools and community events. He acknowledges that changing peoples’ mind, especially in our petro-centric society, will be the chief struggle.

Because of the strong agricultural industry in this area, there are several people who drive diesel trucks, Holliday says politics often preclude any promise of changing fuel-buying habits. He adds that it’s especially hard because of the current administration.

“We have an oil tycoon for a president, who has made his money on Texas oil,” Holliday laments.

Instead of the country’s leaders spending “$100 million” on the current situation in Iraq, Holliday said he promotes a plan that would spend that money on home soil to support the automotive industry to convert cars to run on biodiesel.

“That could completely change our country from being dependent on foreign oil to depending on ourselves for our gas.”

The Colorado-based National Renewal Energy Laboratory’s diesel projects claims that biodiesel could contribute 5 percent of this country’s diesel needs. That would subtract 146 million barrels of imported crude oil each year, it adds. Ultimately, this would diversify the energy supply in this country, as well as reduce trade deficit and improve the U.S. economy.

“Running a car on vegetable oil is as American and as redneck as you can get,” says Holliday. “To get farmers to grow our fuel, though, would be a revolution.”

Ultimately, Holliday concedes that it all comes down to money. Like him, he wishes the government would sanction and invest in alternative fuel. It reminds, him, he says, of something a high school teacher once told him: “Every environmental problem is just an economic problem in disguise.”

Holliday’s truck isn’t disguised though. You can pick him out by the crunched back bumper and the french fry smell wafting through the air.







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