Road Trip: Have Vegetable Oil, Will Travel
Fifteen students took a victory lap around the Dartmouth Green August 5 after covering more than 10,000 miles in a bus powered by vegetable oil. Eager to talk about their trip and lead tours of the Big Green Bus, the students stepped off their home-away-from-home and dove right into an official presentation at Thayer School.
“Driving into Hanover today was incredible,” Ariel Dowling ’05, Th’05 told an enthusiastic welcome-back crowd. “We did it!”
The cross-country bus trip originated as a way to get the College’s Ultimate Frisbee team to a tournament near Seattle but quickly morphed into an experiment in using — and spreading the word about — alternative fuels.
The students, 14 seniors and one junior, including engineering sciences majors Dowling, Mike Beilstein ’05, Dave McCune ’05, and Cliff Orvedal ’05, bought a 1992 diesel-powered school bus and converted the engine to run on waste vegetable oil. Starting up the vehicle with diesel fuel warmed the vegetable oil enough to flow through the engine. The students refitted the interior with tables, chairs, and sleeping bunks, painted the exterior Dartmouth green, and labeled the bus as running on vegetable oil. The group pulled out of Hanover June 15, three days after graduation.
Throughout the six-week adventure, the bus and its chase car, a Mercedes converted with a commercial kit to run on vegetable oil, pulled into restaurant parking lots to fill up on old, discarded cooking oil. The team used a hose with a built-in filter to transfer the oil from the restaurants’ waste containers to the bus’ fuel tank. The 12-ton bus got a respectable seven miles per gallon on vegetable oil compared to diesel’s eight. According to Orvedal, emissions from the bus were carbon neutral. The exhaust had another advantage as well: it smelled like French fries.
The aroma helped draw attention to the bus, and the group made the most of it, talking with people at every turn. The group made television news in Pittsburgh and attracted crowds at the Boston Common and the beach in San Diego. When a Hummer rolled up next to the Big Green Bus in Washington, D.C., one student jumped out and handed the driver a packet of information on alternative fuels. “We’re not forcing our views on anyone. We just wanted to the get the message out,” said Dowling.
“The best audience was the 6- to 10-year-olds,” reported Orvedal. “They ate it up and were excited about everything we said. One kid even suggested using milk as an alternative fuel.”
The students raised almost $30,000 for the trip. Sponsors included Thayer School, Dartmouth, several businesses, and singer Dar Williams, who, according to Dowling, was “thrilled” with the project.
Repairs were the biggest expense. For example, two weeks into the trip the bus ground to a halt. “But it wasn’t due to veggie oil,” Dowling said. “The engine overheated.”
And how did the team fare in Ultimate Frisbee? Not so well. “Sitting on a bus for 16 hours a day is not a great way to train,” said Doug Hannah ’05.
For more information about the project — and instructions for converting vehicles to run on waste vegetable oil — visit the Big Green Bus website.
For more photos, visit our Big Green Bus set on Flickr.