Vegetable oil as fuel: It's free, easy to find and reduces auto emissions

Neil Young has used it to power a fleet of tour buses. And Dusty Williams just used it to drive back and forth twice to the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy.

"There's nothing like passing every gas station and waving at them," said Williams, 27, a sushi chef who lives in Stateline. "I drive past gas stations and think of buying a Snickers bar."

Fueling a diesel car with vegetable oil works. It produces less pollution, gets the same number of miles per gallon, and provides as much power as diesel fuel.

Kits that allow a diesel engine to be converted to run on vegetable oil are available online for about $850.

"All the conversion does is heat the oil before it enters the engine," Williams said. "And yes, it does smell like french fries (when it burns)."

He gets his used oil free from restaurants. It needs to settle for a few days before going into a steel barrel which Williams heats.

The liquefied oil flows through a filtration system on its way into a 12-gallon plastic tank Williams keeps in the bed of his pickup. A plastic tube from the underside of his Volkswagen routes the oil from the tank to the engine.

The only catch in the system Williams uses is that it doesn't run solely on vegetable oil. It also needs biodiesel, vegetable oil thinned by a dose of methanol.

Williams has to start his Volkswagen on biodiesel so the engine can warm up for about five minutes. The biodiesel is the regular fuel tank. Then he flips a switch on his dashboard that sends vegetable oil, which by then is thin enough from the heat of the running engine to be used in place of the biodiesel.

Williams doesn't need much biodiesel, but it does cost about $2.75 a gallon and has to buy it in Reno. Williams said newer vegetable oil conversion kits eliminate the need for biodiesel by using heated fuel injectors.

Williams, a certified mechanic, said he discovered vegetable oil could be used in place of diesel at the Whole Earth Festival at the University of California at Davis in April 2003.

But what made him decide to search out diesel vehicles and vegetable oil?

"I'm a borderline environmentalist. I live in Lake Tahoe and think it's a beautiful place," Williams said. "The main thing is I'm completely petroleum-free. I'm no longer part of that game."

He can be reached by e-mail at or at


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