Students Take Veggie-Fueled "BioBus" on Eco Road Trip

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2004

No practical fuel alternative to gasoline? Tell that to the Project BioBus team from Middlebury Collegy in Vermont. Their planned 15,000- mile (24,140-kilometer) tour around the United States this fall is intended to stop even the most hardened skeptics in their tracks.

The trip is designed to demonstrate the feasibility of using vegetable oil-derived "biodiesel" fuel at schools—for bus fleets, maintenance equipment, and even furnaces. To prove that point, the group is undertaking the journey in a school bus powered solely by biodiesel.

Biodiesel, according to the Project BioBus Web site, "is a safe, renewable, clean burning, domestically-produced fuel made from vegetable oils (such as soy and rapeseed) that can be used in existing diesel engines without modifications." This eco-friendly fuel is refined from vegetable oil, including fryer oil from fast-food restaurants, by combining it with lye and methanol.

Beyond trying to convince schools to consider the switch, the Project BioBus team hopes to show the public at large the benefits they see in biodiesel: no necessary lifestyle changes, drastically reduced harmful emissions, less dependence on foreign oil, and support for U.S. farmers and related industries.

The 13-member team of Middlebury College students and alumni began their trek September 13 in Vermont with a U.S. $10,000 grant from the college. They are making a wide loop around the U.S. to visit over 20 major cities by the beginning of December.

Ready for Veggie?

With recent oil prices topping $50 a barrel, the public is becoming more interested in alternative fuel sources, says team member Stephen Swank.

"People know that it's a big problem," Swank said. "We realized that we have a responsibility to influence fellow students and … generations below us on the subject."

With that mission in mind, the team uses the bus, brightly painted with scenes of corn fields, as a focal point for their presentations to elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as to colleges, universities, and "green"-minded institutions.

The 2004 BioBus is actually the second such vehicle these students have built and road tested. A 1991-model school bus with 140,000 miles (225,000 kilometers) to its credit, this latest bus gets an average of 8 miles per gallon (or 3.4 kilometers per liter) of biodiesel, which is on par with petroleum diesel buses, Swank said.

After adding a 100-gallon (379-liter) tank to the existing 60-gallon (227-liter) one, the 2004 BioBus has an impressive 1,300-mile (2,092-kilometer) range per fill-up.

The idea for this year's journey sprang from the success of the original BioBus, which was developed around a rock climbing trip the students planned for the summer of 2003. Learning that some Volkswagen Jetta diesel car models are equipped to run on vegetable oil, they purchased a 1989 GMC bus with 200,000 miles (321,869 kilometers) on the odometer and modified it to do the same.

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