Grease junkies

Students deliver a call to action on a cross-country trip fueled by vegetable oil

big green bus trip
Cruising along Route 89 in New Hampshire: dozens of miles down, some 12,000 to go. (Anthony Arch)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 29, 2008

When setting out on a summer road trip to change the world, it helps to have good books.

So on a top shelf near the back of the Big Green Bus, past the bolted-down couches, just before the luggage bins, and across from the refrigerator, sits "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, but also "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon, "Oil on the Brain" by Lisa Margonelli, "Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future" by Godfrey Boyle, and Richard Feynman's "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out."

It also helps to have good music.

Just about every one of the 12 Dartmouth College students riding 12,000 miles of American highways this summer has brought along an iPod loaded with the likes of Daft Punk, Slightly Stoopid, and Alice Smith. Trey Roy, a senior from Virginia Beach who is also known as DJ Enzo back on campus, keeps the beat most often, with everything from RJD2 to Hercules And Love Affair.

And you can't forget the importance of accidental accessories. Anthony Arch, a senior from San Francisco, came across a discarded, old-school baseball cap with plastic mesh in the back and a wolf badge on the front.

"I was a Cub Scout," Arch said, slipping it on his head backwards as the bus rolled through southern New Hampshire. "I think I found my summer hat."

But if you're going to travel on board this bus, with its new rooftop solar panels powering everything inside, and a converted diesel fuel system burning waste vegetable oil, it is most important to have patience and perseverance. The goal, after all, is to traverse the country spreading a message - "Change your fuel, change your world" - at parties and festivals, but also at museums, science institutes, political offices, and on the open road during an odyssey that will continue through August.

On the trip's first day, a Monday in June on which the temperature climbed toward 90, fuel hose leaks and a scarcity of discarded fryer oil slowed things down for hours. By the time the sun set, the bus had made it a whopping 52 miles, and sophomore Kevin McGregor of Russellville, Ark., was lying on his back beneath the bus in a Lowe's parking lot in Woburn, grease dripping on his fingers and face as he tightened a new hose.

Andrew Zabel, a senior from Fairfield, Conn., and a veteran of one of three previous summer Big Green Bus trips, sat on a nearby guardrail, giddy from final exam all-nighters and thoughts of the journey ahead.

"I think most of us have gotten an hour or two of sleep," Zabel said. "Man. I don't even know. We've got an overnight ride to D.C. left. And then meeting with almost 14 senators tomorrow. So we're going to be bright and peachy, or looking like raccoons."

Someone chimed in, prompting Zabel to continue:

"And then another overnighter to Bonnaroo. So, ah, we're pushing them hard, man, pushing them hard. It's going to be good."

If anyone has the energy and ambition to change the world, it just may be this eclectic collection of engineering, environmental studies, and comparative literature majors from the urban East Coast, wild Alaska, and points between.

The vegetable oil they depend on comes from the kindness of restaurant owners who store their used grease in dumpsters out back. The bus gets 7 miles per gallon, so it and a chase car, also powered by veggie, would need a hundred gallons or more to motor to D.C. Just before midnight, after hitting a jackpot compliments of a manager at China Pearl in Woburn, all of the dreamers were nearly dozing as Arch turned the old school bus onto Interstate 95.

Arch, who was running on a can of Red Bull, looked toward a button on a big black box, grabbed a CB microphone, and called out to a friend in the chase car, "I'm gonna switch her to veg!"

A flick of the button and without a lurch the Big Green Bus, heretofore burning diesel, was fueled by good old grease.

A CB voice crackled back: "OK!"

Vegetable oil is not going to solve the problem of our dependence on fossil fuels, and everyone on board knows that. But the system is a working example of the bus's motto, and of the spirit for alternative ideas that the students say must be embraced to stem the tide of climate change.

Fifty years ago, when Kerouac sent his road-tripping trio out into a different America, they went looking, as his narrator, Sal Paradise, said, for "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time."

This summer, the students on the Big Green Bus are looking for you. They want you to take small steps - turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, conserve more, use less - while thinking about bigger changes.

Just after daybreak on Tuesday, the bus climbed up and over the George Washington Bridge, the hazy spikes of Manhattan to the south, and motored along I-95 into Newark. It was not yet 6 a.m., but the place was already a humming hub of the fossil fuel system that drives so much of the modern world. Cars and trucks and buses crisscrossed on interstates and underpasses and bridges. Cranes at a port hoisted and lowered cargo. Jets descended as others rose.

The Big Green Bus chugged on at 60 miles per hour, and somewhere near the Susquehanna River, in Maryland, Bennet Meyers, a freshly-graduated physics major from San Jose, Calif., who is chief engineer for the bus's fuel system, crawled from a bunk in his boxers. Soon, he and the others would dial their cellphones for a rolling conference call with specialists from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Climate Institute. Open windows delivered a damp, dusty heat, and Meyers scratched sleep from his eyes.

"The problem comes from a sense of consumerism, of living beyond the means of the planet," he said. "Each one of us does something a little bit bad and doesn't think they're doing anything. It all adds up. I am not anti-progress. I love modern medicine. I love my computer. I love my iPod. But at the same time, you have to be aware."

Then it was Meyers's turn to take the wheel for the final push into Washington. The dance tune "What Is Love?" played on the stereo. Meyers, shirtless and wearing wrap-around sunglasses, turned toward Capitol Hill and sang another song with a country twang:

I want to be a school bus driver,

and drive all over the world.

If you like, well you can ride with me,

and we will live on the road!

Imagine what the US Capitol Police thought when the bus pulled to a stop a few minutes later.

"I don't know anything about this," one officer said, as he signaled another to get the dog to sniff his way through the bus. Someone handed over the parking paperwork from a senator's office, and the police let the bus roll up opposite the Russell Senate Office Building.

But what to wear? There were no showers to be had. Sandals OK? T-shirts? The students sprawled on the lawn to make a plan.

Nathan Mazonson, a senior from Menlo Park, Calif., who was joining the team on Capitol Hill, walked up wearing a fresh oxford shirt and khakis.

"People in there are looking pretty businesslike," he said.

For the next several hours, teams of two and three students - fresh shirts trying to cover wear and tear of the road - entered conference rooms with long wooden desks and portraits on the walls. They thanked the staffs of senators who supported new energy initiatives, and urged others to start taking steps. The students were told, in the office of one senator, that meetings are held more often with well-heeled lobbyists for oil corporations.

Midafternoon, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, ventured out into the near-100 degree heat. She looked under the hood of the Big Green Bus, asking whether the vegetable oil system worked well in cold weather, toured inside, and posed for a photo with the crew. Just before heading back to her office, she paused.

"There are a lot of people inside these buildings who have been doing things the same way for a long time," she said.

Air-conditioned cool burst from the nearby door of the Dirksen building as Murkowski bid a friendly goodbye: "I'm going inside!"

No such luck for the bus crew. After lightning and downpours and a search for pillowcases - replacement filters for another 100 gallons of veggie oil donated from a strip of restaurants in Arlington, Va. - the students slumped onto couches for another all-nighter on the road.

By the first soft light of Wednesday morning, Mazonson had moved to the swivel shot-gun seat to keep Arch company as he drove. Meals during the early days consisted mostly of classics: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mac 'n' cheese, chips and salsa. Sometime after breakfast but before lunch, Mazonson spread jelly on a piece of bread. Fit from soccer and wilderness survival training, he worried that too many bystanders might see the bus as a hippy lark, something that doesn't matter to mainstream America.

"Global warming is my biggest concern. I lose sleep over it every night," Mazonson said. "I want to tap into those people who say, 'Over my dead body would I spend the summer packed with 12 people in a bus like this.' "

By afternoon, the Big Green Bus arrived at the edge of Manchester, Tenn., for Bonnaroo, the nation's largest music festival. Security guards escorted the bus toward pod number three, the "green pod," where it parked between The Solar Bus, from Vermont, and Clif Bar's "2-Mile Challenge" bus, which encouraged people to ride a bike for trips two miles or less.

It was an environmental love fest - until the next morning, when a long stream of RVs, SUVs, and cars began delivering some 80,000 revelers. By nightfall, throngs strolled the dirt lanes toward Centeroo, home to Which Stage and What Stage and other venues for concerts by Battles and Vampire Weekend and Lez Zeppelin that burned, with light shows and amplified sounds, toward dawn.

Some surprises made their way to the bus, including Justin Rogers, a lanky 25-year-old from Folsom, La., who described how he's building cylinder tanks to try to convert algae to biodiesel to power his family farm. He cited reports that algae can generate 100,000 gallons of fuel per acre.

"Have you looked into the algae stuff lately?" Rogers asked. "It's amazing."

Onboard, Elyce Cronin, a new graduate who had studied astrophysics, worked on a laptop to prepare presentations she would show a week later when the bus arrived in her hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C. Cronin is considering a career in environmental science education. It is up to us, she said, to convince our leaders to harness our collective creativity to solve the climate crisis.

"Kennedy said what, 'We're going to put a man on the moon,' and we did it in '69. Absolutely unbelievable," Cronin said. "There's no reason we can't do something like that again."

Tom Haines can be reached at

If You Go

Find oil, filter fries, flick switch
The Big Green Bus is somewhere near Amarillo, Texas, today. Follow its journey throughout the summer at The site contains links to trips in previous years, and video, photos, and blogs of the progress the students are making.

The old school bus has been converted to work on waste vegetable oil, the stuff found behind retaurants across the country. As gas tops $4 a gallon, and more people convert diesel engines to run on veggie, it has become a commodity of its own. The Big Green Bus gang are always careful to ask permission before dipping a hose into a dumpster.

Here's how the system works once the veggie oil is pumped onboard the bus:
- It passes through filters to catch french fries and other floating debris.

- It is stored in a rear tank that can hold roughly 100 gallons.

- It is pumped to a forward heated tank that begins to push the oil toward a thinness needed for it to work effectively.

- It is filtered again, more finely, then passes through a heat exchanger, rising to roughly 190 degrees.

- With the flick of a switch by the driver's seat, diesel lines are closed off and veggie oil flows to fuel the motor.


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