Earth Day : Not just cooking with oil
"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time." Rudolf Diesel, 1911
Who knew the day would come when the vegetable oil that makes our French fries crispy would be powering cars? Rudolf Diesel for one, about a hundred years ago.
Mr. Diesel's engine, which he invented and introduced to the world at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, ran on peanut oil. But America's love affair with petroleum had already begun; it was inexpensive and in seemingly inexhaustible supply.
Today, however, we have changed the way we think about energy. The cost of fuel is increasing and is expected to continue to do so, and money speaks with a loud voice. Never mind the many other complex and meaningful reasons to conserve and otherwise use our finite resources wisely. In this new climate, alternative ideas previously mocked have gained traction. Those who spearheaded such ideas are starting to look like visionaries. And that's where Matt Thibert comes in.
Mr. Thibert is the owner of Vineyard Alternative Auto, a garage that recently opened for business off State Road in Tisbury. But this isn't your average auto shop, although you can go there to get a conventional oil change. You can also go there to get your car to run on vegetable oil.
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
Mr. Thibert himself has put nearly 15,000 miles on his cranberry-colored, veggie oil-fueled 1986 VW Golf (aka the "Frialator"). Almost three years ago he bought a conversion kit online, and after about ten hours of work, the Golf was running off vegetable oil instead of diesel fuel. And he hasn't looked back.
"My goal is to have all my vehicles running on vegetable oil within a year," Mr. Thibert says.
Now that he's had some practice on the Golf - a car that had been long abused and was being sold for parts - his '99 Ford F250 diesel is next on the conversion block.
An affinity and an aptitude for mechanics led Mr. Thibert to make a career out of automobiles. He developed a love of German cars, worked for a while as a mechanic on a BMW pro racing team, and traveled all over the country. And now he lives in Edgartown with his 11th-generation Islander wife Kristina West and their dogs, and he just may help push the Island's alternative fuel movement to another level.
"I've always loved diesel engines," Mr. Thibert says. "They're simple, efficient." The word diesel may conjure negative images for some people, but he says, "Diesel now is as clean if not cleaner than gas engines."
In a vegetable oil-powered vehicle, diesel fuel still plays a part, but it's a small one. In the Frialator, for example, diesel fuel starts the car, but once warmed up the flip of one switch shifts the fuel source to straight vegetable oil (SVO).
For a while Mr. Thibert got cooking oil from a nearby Chinese restaurant that was more than happy to give it away. He ran it through his handmade filtration unit and poured it right into the tank. His friends joked that they smelled egg rolls when he drove by. But as gas prices rose, he laughed all the way to the Chinese restaurant.
"Everyone has their own motivation," Mr. Thibert says of the reasons why someone would choose to drive a vegetable oil-powered car. "Some people want to reduce their environmental impact; some are politically minded and don't want to rely on foreign oil. Some people are just into self reliance."
Counting himself in the latter category, Mr. Thibert says that his desire to be self-sufficient as well as his commitment to the environment brought him to the world of alternative fuels. But he doesn't mind admitting that financial reasons are important too. "I'm cheap," he says with a shrug.
At this point, you can't go out and purchase a brand-new vegetable oil-powered car. "This is all backyard mechanic type stuff," Mr. Thibert says. And although most of the like-minded people on the Island are working in their own individual backyards, Mr. Thibert and others are working to change that. His friend, Justin Tourigny, makes biodiesel.
"There's about a half dozen of us," Mr. Tourigny says of the Island alternative-fuel crowd. "We keep to ourselves, work in our little shops. There should be a co-op."
With the opening of Vineyard Alternative Auto, there may finally be a space to centralize their efforts. "Matt's got a lot of initiative, and now he's got the space, says Mr. Tourigny. "We would like to see Matt centralize it. A place where it could happen besides in everyone's backyards."
Matt Thibert invites like-minded individuals to contact him at his shop or email him at email@example.com.