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Veggie-Powered Road Trip 

A Frank Gehry design whiz creates biofueled Volkswagens

Thursday, Jun 9 2011
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Nick Pisca lives in a comfortable home in a middle-class area of Inglewood, where he and his pregnant wife, Erika, have something in their garage none of the neighbors can match: a veggie fuel–powered Jetta he takes on cross-country road trips to show that converting to vegetable oil isn't just for aging hippies.

Pisca will take off soon with his longtime buddy Glenn Wienke of Wisconsin, as the aficionados of WVO — that's waste vegetable oil — travel 6,000 miles on $10 in their second car in the unusual fleet, Wienke's Passat, which is kept in Oshkosh.

Architect Pisca and IT guy Wienke run their aging cars on cheap, plentiful, used vegetable oil — most of it quietly handed over to them by restaurants in the unofficial, off-the-books world of WVO energy.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Nick Pisca and his futuristic beater

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Pisca has a master's degree in architecture from SCI-Arc and a wildly cool job: He designs computer systems that allow architect Frank Gehry to bend materials into unlikely shapes. More specifically, he's Gehry Technologies' automation manager, specializing in the design, development and implementation of "advanced parametric architecture projects."

Using that know-how, he's designed an elegant system of tubes under the Jetta and Passat hoods to heat the filtered vegetable oil used by the cars' diesel engines. (Diesel engines are used for WVO over gas engines because the inventor of the diesel originally meant for heavy vegetable oil to also work in his machines.) "A vegetable oil–fueled engine basically looks like an engine with a bunch of extra tubes," Pisca says.

Wienke, an IT specialist for educational software company Renaissance Learning in Wisconsin, focuses on the basic mechanics. He explains: "Nick is the guy who wants to make everything look pretty. I'm the one who wants to make sure it's cheap and functional."

They enjoy the challenge of doing things as cheaply as possible, and they think other people might like to do the same, if they can get the word out.

Running cars on waste vegetable oil is a lot more popular since Willie Nelson started running his tour bus on it. But even with gas at $4 a gallon, veggie oil still gets a bum rap as the favored fuel for hippies or extreme hipsters with nothing but time on their hands.

"There's a connotation that's not always good, that it's a dirty activity for granola hippies," Pisca says. "But we're average guys who like to have fun and say we did the whole trip for $10 in fuel."

Pisca and Wienke, friends since kindergarten, have driven one or the other of their high-mileage clunkers across a big chunk of the country for the past four summers, sometimes getting local news coverage.

Pisca has a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta diesel with 217,000 miles on it, converted to WVO. So make that a VW-WVO Jetta. Wienke has a 1996 Volkswagen Passat–WVO with 296,000 miles on it.

In late June, they'll launch their veggie-powered tour of the Midwest and South from Wisconsin, visiting tourist sites and fellow "greasers," as vegetable oil–fueled do-it-yourselfers call themselves.

The cars' backseats are rigged with cages filled with cubes — 5-gallon plastic tubs of used vegetable oil — plus there's a big tank of vegetable oil in the trunk, which supplies the engine through long tubes.

The original diesel engine and tank are intact in both cars, and the diesel is switched on only at the start to quickly warm up the engine before switching over to reclaimed vegetable oil. The systems get about 45 miles to the gallon.

Restaurants are a prime source for veggie oil fuel, but you can't just pull up in front. You've got to develop relationships, eat there a lot and get to know the people. Pisca declines to name his own prime source in his neck of L.A./Inglewood, which he describes only as a barbecue joint.

One tip for would-be do-it-yourselfers: Target the barbecue joints. They don't fry very much — often just french fries — so their oil has a much lower water content. Also, French restaurants. "The oil looks like it's hardly been used," Pisca says.

After you score a source, the oil has to be filtered and allowed to settle for a couple weeks before it's used as fuel.

When they head out on June 29, they'll rely on their backseat stash of prefiltered oil and whatever they can get from the loosely organized network of greasers along the way.

Breakdowns — none of them caused by vegetable oil — are the high point of their greaser trips, they say. These are well-used cars with more than 200,000 miles each, and the two backyard mechanics have been jury-rigging them together for years.

Recalling breakdowns in the New Mexico desert and on the Indiana turnpike, Pisca says: "If we had a whole trip without a breakdown, I think we'd be disappointed."

To celebrate their fifth road trip, they're making a documentary of it with freelance writer-comedian turned filmmaker Elayne Laken of Webisode Studio. She won't be accompanying them. Instead, the duo will do the shooting themselves with digital cameras mounted throughout the car, plus a handheld.

"We're going to get some little GoPro HD cameras," Pisca says. "They're waterproof," which is important because somewhere along the way, "they definitely will end up getting dumped in a vat of oil."

Although the two men would love to launch a new economic trend in personal transportation in the U.S. — free or nearly free fuel — it's not really on the horizon.

Lisa Schweitzer, an associate professor at USC specializing in transportation, alternative energy and sustainability who has experimented with waste vegetable oil, says there's a lot to love in this technology.

For one thing, by the time the oil is filtered it has no odor. Also, waste vegetable oil is no more flammable than newspaper. Unlike the terrible explosions seen from ruptured gas tanks, Schweitzer says, "If your car was rear-ended, there might be a fire if there was a spark from the collision, but it would be like a grease fire in your kitchen."

But the system has drawbacks. Over time, the used oil may cause more wear on an engine designed for diesel. Getting and filtering the used oil is a messier process than most people want to deal with.

Another reason WVO has failed to gain traction is widespread prejudice among Americans toward diesel cars, Schweitzer says. "It has this reputation as a fiddly fuel that's OK for tractors but is too dirty and takes too long to warm up." But in Europe, modern diesel cars are widely owned.

But the real obstacle to a WVO future is the greasy oil, transferred with giant, drippy funnels — and all the planning ahead.

Even if a subsidy were offered, as with home solar energy, in a nation where many people no longer want to clean their own homes, few would likely be willing to deal with waste vegetable oil.

To follow Pisca and Wienke's trip, go to nickpisca.com.

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