Video: Grads go cross-country in vegetable-oil-powered car

October 26, 2009
By: Beth Haynes

Every day, Stephen Shankles drives his Mercedez Benz to work. It may look like a normal commute, but it certainly doesn't smell like it.

"Instead of a spare tire, I have a 10-12 gallon vegetable oil tank, which as you're driving along heats up and gets pumped into the fume," Shankles explained.

Instead of standard diesel, Shankles fuels up mainly with grease.

"This is what it looks like straight from the restaurant," Shankles said, showing off a tub of vegetable oil. "You can see bits of french fries in it."

The French-fried frugality is paying off. Shankles gets 30 miles to the gallon of free fuel!

He spent about a thousand dollars converting the 26-year-old Mercedez, nicknamed Helga, for vegetable oil.

After graduation in May, Shankles, Joe Norskov, and another friend of theirs decided to test Helga's fuel power on a cross country road trip.

"Every day was a new adventure," said Norskov. "We were constantly looking for grease."

For days, they toured the countryside with Helga and a trailer carrying a 50 gallon drum.

"With 50 gallons of fuel, we could go a thousand miles without stopping at a gas station," said Shankles.

But when they did stop, it was always an interesting conversation.

"Most people were, 'Do what?'"

They got most of their fuel from little restaurants along the way.

"At some point, grease just started smelling like grease," Norskov said. "The donut was really the only one we could tell a difference."

Apparently, buffalo have a keener sense of smell. The animals surrounded their car, road-blocking the trip for several minutes. Thankfully, this was their only run-in with wildlife.

In all, they traveled 9200 miles from Mount Rushmore and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, San Francisco Bay, and back--all on 2 tanks of diesel fuel.

"I'm saving a lot of money on fuel, and it burns something like 80 percent cleaner than diesel does," said Shankles. "It's kind of a win-win situation."

And, at 250,000 miles, Helga is still going strong.