The Tractor Project
Greasecar founder Justin Carven got involved in bio-fuels at Hampshire College in 1998 and soon discovered the work of Carl Bielenberg, founder of the Better World Workshop, an appropriate technology group working in western Africa. With the immediate goal of enabling domestic vegetable oil production – and the larger goal of empowering the people of rural Africa – the Better World Workshop had developed a hand-operated seed press, producing oil for cooking or soap. But what piqued Justin's interest was that Bielenberg, a trained engineer aware of the diesel engine's vegetarian roots, had developed a system for running diesel generators on vegetable oil.
The difference between Bielenberg's success and the previous failures of others was the inclusion of a coolant-heated fuel filter, which allowed the vegetable oil to flow freely through the filter element in lower ambient temperatures. Though this breakthrough had wider – even global – implications, it also carried the immediate benefit of providing affordable fuel for diesel generators, electrifying rural villages with per capita incomes of less than a dollar a day. Original "tractor project" crew, Justin Carven, far left; Greg Kholer and Ariel Benjamin far right
Bielenberg, upon his return to the States, performed the same conversion on a Volkswagen Rabbit. And at Hampshire College, a decrepit, antique, but very lucky tractor – an Allis Chalmers G – was about to get a new lease on a life. Provided, of course, it went vegetarian.
In 1996, Ariel Benjamin and Greg Kholer – two Hampshire students inspired by Bielenberg's work – had begun to form a project to convert an old tractor to run on vegetable oil and put it to use at Hampshire's Farm Center. But although it had received a small grant from the Lemelson Foundation, the project never progressed past the initial research until Justin got involved. Fascinated by Bielenberg's research, Justin worked with a team of students over the next two months to replace the tractor's engine and modify the fuel system, employing Bielenberg's design but fabricating the parts at the Lemelson Assistive Technology Design Center at Hampshire College.
In the spring of 1999, the students trucked the tractor down to Washington, DC, for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance Annual Presentation at the Smithsonian Institution. The tractor began work at the Farm Center upon its return.
Since vegetable oil prices in the United States are held artificially high by farm subsidies, unused vegetable oil has only recently become comparable in price to petro-diesel. In 1999, diesel was close to a dollar per gallon; fresh vegetable oil was almost three times as expensive, making it a hard sell as an alternative fuel. But Josh Tickell, whose book "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank" had been released the year before, was converting waste restaurant grease to biodiesel; why not run straight waste oil instead?
According to Justin's copy of the first edition of Tickell's book, there was one very good reason why not to run a car on any vegetable oil at all: straight vegetable oil, Tickell said, is far too thick to be pumped through ordinary injectors. He cited a case of a tractor in South Africa running problem-free on straight vegetable oil, but scoffed at the idea of fueling "your mother's beloved Mercedes" on it: "Remember," he said, "there is a difference between a luxury car and a tractor." Of course. But was the difference really so great?
Since few had ventured into this particular aspect of the field (Tickell wouldn't publish relative research for another year), Justin took the idea back to Carl Bielenberg. Bielenberg was dubious, speaking ominously of molecule elongation after cooking. But despite the dire predictions of all his sources, Justin was determined. He needed a vehicle. His budget was $400.
The Quantum Guinea Pig
Justin's first idea was to drop a diesel motor into his gas-powered 1970 Land Rover, but the estimated $3000 price tag made him turn to the local classifieds. There, under the heading "Vehicles for Parts," he found a listing for a 1983 VW Quantum turbo-diesel: engine good, $400/best. Sporting huge paint blisters, no interior carpeting, and a sunroof covered in duct tape, the Quantum was the perfect guinea pig. Justin talked a hundred dollars off the price – this would go toward registration and restoration – and two days later drove it home. With some Bondo, silicone, carpeting, and an afternoon, Justin says, the Quantum "looked like four hundred bucks."
The Lemelson Foundation offered Justin a small grant – slightly more than his original budget – to continue his research, which began with collecting a small sample of hydrogenated soybean oil from the Hampshire College dining commons. Partially congealed even in the New England fall, "it bore more resemblance to applesauce," Justin said, "than it did to diesel fuel." If the Quantum would run on this stuff, he thought, it would run on anything.
Bielenberg's design, while adequate for generators in tropical climates, would need revision for cold-climate motor vehicle applications. Justin began by simplifying the fabrication of the heated filter jacket. Bielenberg's was made from stainless steel sheet metal – a cylinder within a cylinder, capped on each end, with two ports for coolant and the fuel filter seated in the center. This device was spliced into the upper radiator hose, where hot coolant would flow around the fuel filter en route from the engine to the radiator. This was effective, but large and difficult to fabricate.
Justin's alternative was to coil a soft copper tube around the filter and splice it into the cooling system. While effective in heat transfer, the copper tube restricted coolant flow so much that the Quantum would overheat, so Justin relocated the coil to the lower-pressure hoses of the cabin heater circuit.
Even in the relatively warm autumn temperatures, it became apparent that a heated tank would be necessary; running on waste oil was feasible, but running on a block of lard seemed unlikely. The first Greasecar fuel tank was a half-gallon steel rectangle with a copper coil soldered inside. Brass fittings on the outside allowed for connection to the coolant circuit. Justin mounted it in the engine bay, then started the engine and waited. The coils got hot. Justin turned the valve and took a few precautionary steps back.
Nothing happened, which is exactly what was supposed to happen. The engine grew a little quieter, maybe, and the smell of cooking oil grew strong, but the Quantum idled happily away. Justin took some victory laps around campus – enough victory laps to nearly run out of vegetable oil – then switched back to diesel and headed out for a celebratory pint with some friends.
So it worked, and worked beautifully, and the next step was to make it practical. Justin installed an electric fuel selection valve, which allowed switching fuels from inside the vehicle, and fabricated a 14-gallon stainless steel heated fuel tank. This addition, of course, provided a substantial increase in range, and allowed a hundred-mile trip home for Thanksgiving – the first true test, which the Quantum passed at eighty miles per hour uphill. The first Greasecar was on the road.
Now that the technology was proven, it was time to get the word out. Like Josh and Kaia Tickell and others, Justin figured that a cross-country road trip in a Greasecar would simultaneously raise awareness of this new, clean fuel and demonstrate first-hand how well it worked.
Justin graduated in May of 2000 with a BA in mechanical design and began looking for a new vehicle. With another small budget, he needed something more accommodating than the Quantum –something that would double as a place to sleep – and with a small loan from his parents, he scraped together $1500 for a Volkswagen camper. It had been immobile for so long that Justin had to rock the brakes loose before limping home at a top speed of 30 miles per hour, trailing a plume of smoke and battling a serious case of buyer's remorse.
Even with new filters and fuel, the camper topped out at 50 miles per hour and took about two minutes to get there. The unavoidable fact was that this 2000-pound van was powered by the same little diesel as a Rabbit. But a local diesel enthusiast (and future Greasecar customer) had made a hobby of swapping turbo diesels into Vanagons, and from him, Justin got a list of the materials required for the job. At the top of the list was an engine from a Volkswagen Quantum.
The engine swap was complete in June, and Justin and his friend Skip Wrightson set off across the country, stopping at restaurants along the way and painstakingly collecting and heating the oil with a saucepan and a hot-plate before filtering it into the tank. The Greasecar garnered enormous media attention in major cities along the way, culminating in a California emissions test that was amazing enough to appear on Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
After his return, Justin continued research and development of his system, turning it into a business in the fall of 2000. Working in Hadley, MA, he continued to experiment with numerous configurations, including a double-bottomed tank (the lower compartment filled with coolant) and a stainless steel welded filter/heat jacket assembly. Both were successful, but he eventually returned to the original design; both innovations entailed complex and labor-intensive fabrication. He'd contracted out the manufacture of the stainless steel filter heater, and it had become apparent that Greasecar's small production scale, at this early stage, would limit the company to in-house fabrication of its product.
Justin's next idea, the purge system, was a significant breakthrough. Before this development, a safe engine shutdown required at least ten minutes to burn off the remaining vegetable oil in the fuel lines. Justin's purge system allowed a safe engine shutdown in only thirty seconds.
Justin needed more space for production – having learned the pitfalls of small-scale contract manufacturing – so in the spring of 2002, he rented a small workshop space in Florence, MA. Michael Garjian, a local business leader with a reputation for innovation and social responsibility, began working with Greasecar as a consultant. The phone was ringing off the hook, and sales were taking off; in the first year, Justin had sold a dozen kits, and now he was selling five to ten per month. One of those sales was to Lee Briante, who'd graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and installed a Greasecar kit in his '85 Volvo wagon.
The spring of 2004 brought a new wave of media attention and interest [link], and Greasecar was getting fifty to a hundred phone calls per day. With only Justin and two part-timers covering every aspect of the business, Greasecar was overwhelmed by the production and customer service demands generated by all the publicity. Lee had read online rumors that Greasecar was going under, and he dropped by the shop in Florence to see if he could help. He took a job at Greasecar in May of 2004, answering phones full-time.
Shortly thereafter, Justin contacted Don Depuis at Lemelson, looking for a machinist. Don recommended Josh Prescott, who graduated from Hampshire in May and began working at Greasecar the next month. Justin also needed a full-time production person, and he hired Josiah Cuneo in September. The larger company would also need a larger space, and in June, Greasecar moved to its 4000-square-foot present location at the Paragon Arts and Industry Building in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Daryl Beck, a Greasecar installer, set up shop in the garage.
Business was slow in the winter of 2004-2005, but it allowed time for experimentation and improvement. By the spring, nearly every part of the kit had been revised and updated. The tanks were made of heavier-gauge aluminum. Gone were the 3/8-inch copper and the six-port valve, replaced by 5/8-inch copper and two three-port solenoid valves with Viton seals, custom-manufactured to Greasecar's specifications. The filler caps, fuel selection switch, and gauges were all new, and Greasecar's production scale had grown large enough to contract out the machining of new auto filter heads and fuel tank coolant ports. Then, in the spring, sales suddenly skyrocketed, beginning a trend that would raise Greasecar's revenue nearly 350% in 2005. The spike in sales put a strain on production, and a backlog began to develop. Greasecar would have to grow yet again to stay afloat.
Josh's friend Ty Williams had been harassing him for months about a job at Greasecar, and Ty began working in assembly and fabrication in March of 2005. Joe Carven, who'd been helping Justin with accounting over the years, formally joined Greasecar later in the month. Ethan Olmstead came on board part-time in 2005, but the backlog still loomed larger every day. Lee was overwhelmed with phone calls, and customers were losing patience.
Al Sanchez, recently returned from his tour of dutywith the Army in Iraq, took over the welding from Josiah, and Josiah began working with Michael on formalizing and streamlining the production system. In September, Kathy Plocharski began production work and Ryan Mesch took over packing and shipping. To keep up with orders and inquiries and allow Lee to focus on technical questions, Justin hired J.P. Levy and Elly Mullins to work the phones. In October, Ralph McHenry joined the production team. The backlog began to shrink away, and by December, it had all but disappeared. With fourteen employees and an advanced and highly efficient production system, Greasecar is well equipped to provide thorough, personalized customer service and rapid order fulfillment.
Throughout the expansion and the battle with the backlog, product development continued unabated. Greasecar's production scale had grown large enough to accommodate a variety of custom-manufactured parts. The brass fittings on the tank and filter were replaced with CNC-machined aluminum ones, and the company increased the gauge of the aluminum tank yet again, this time to 1/8-inch, and started getting major aluminum components laser-cut at a local metalworking company. Greasecar also added complete on-board and stationary filtration systems to its product lineup, as well as temperature gauges and an improper shutdown alarm, dubbed the Buzz-Box. And as always, Josh and Justin are carrying out research, development and thorough testing on several more product ideas. These innovations, as well as the previous upgrades to the system, are driven by Greasecar's commitment to offering the most practical, efficient and smoothly integrated vegetable oil conversion system available today.
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