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    Burning the Veggie Oil
    By Rini Caudill
The Chronicle-Telegram

(photos by Shahriar Kabir '05)
 Stephen Merrett doesn't worry about cholesterol.
At least, not when it comes to his Jetta.

Merrett, an Oberlin College junior majoring in environmental studies and biology, finds himself eating more fast food these days, trying to butter up restaurant owners. See, he needs their grease.

Merrett modified his 1998 Volkswagen Jetta last summer to run on vegetable oil. It was a diesel system before the modification and it still is—with the flip of a switch, he can change it from oil, used or unused, to diesel.

He gets slightly less miles per gallon—about 37.5 compared to roughly 43 on straight diesel—but penny for penny, he's got a sweet deal.

"I realized the other day I haven't been to a gas station since February," he said. "It's a pain in the neck to filter the oil, but it's free."

Merrett's personal project spun into a broader scope. He recently was awarded a $4,000 scholarship from the American Public Power Association to study the feasibility of producing biodiesel fuel in Oberlin for small-scale use.

Merrett applied for the scholarship with the aid of Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System, the city's own power company. Doug McMillan, OMLPS utility services manager, worked with the college's environmental studies program to help a student apply for the Demonstration of Energy-Efficient Developments scholarship.

"It's got me thinking about it, with gas at $2 a gallon," said McMillan, who will serve as utility coordinator for the project.

Biodiesel combines diesel and waste vegetable oil for use in traditional diesel-only engines. Because biodiesel has the same chemical properties as petroleum diesel, it can be used in vehicles without modifications like the one Merrett installed in his own car.

During the winter he built a processor to complete the process, and set it up for a public test run at the college's Environmental Studies building. It's not complicated, Merrett said.

"It's a little bit of heating and mixing," he said. "The clever solution is a bicycle."

His processor does indeed contain bicycle chains and pedals, but also a large container that drips out the finished product, resembling a modern moonshine still of sorts. It sits now disassembled, in his garage, waiting for a structure to call home.

Merrett plans to use the scholarship to build such a home, with proper ventilation and drainage and solar panels to create electricity, at the George Jones Memorial Farm on state Route 511, just outside of town.

Merrett has been using waste oil collected from dining halls at the college to run his car; if this project receives the community support he wants, he'll need more. He estimates there are more than 3 billion gallons of waste oil generated annually in the United States, most of it from the fast food industry.

Merrett plans to spend his senior year working on four pilot projects, once the biodiesel processor is installed. He plans to run weekend workshops, where the public can see a demonstration of how it works, learn what biodiesel is, and then contribute their own elbow grease—working the pedals—to make fuel they can take home.

He envisions eventually supplying fuel for four types of uses: off-road, such as farm equipment; home heating; electricity production; and on-road, highway vehicle use.

McMillan, of Oberlin's electrical utility, said the agency has a turbine engine it plans to retire in a few years, and may use it to test the fuel down the road.

In the meantime, Merrett tools around town on grease, leaving a distinctive exhaust odor in his wake. He installed the modified engine in his car in August, while living in Oregon. The first test run was a drive to Ohio—and he got about 1,900 miles on 50 gallons of waste oil.

"Most people say it smells like French fries. My friends say it's more like hamburgers and donuts," he said. "I eat more fast food these days but then again, I stopped being a vegetarian about the same time I converted my car."
Reprinted with permission of The Chronicle-Telegram ©2004
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