Taking action in the garage: converting to run on used veggie oil

Cliff drives a Mercedes around the shacks on the Port Broughton foreshore in South Australia. He drives it slow even though it is in perfect condition. He took me for a spin and it felt like we were floating on air.  What a ride!cliff5

Cliff's Mercedes runs on veggie oil and it has for years. He's driven to Sydney and back. The fuel cost him next to nothing and he loves telling people about it.

But Cliff didn't start with the Mercedes. Around nine years ago, Cliff got interested in alternative fuel. He bought a 30-year-old Hino bus. It ran on diesel but he wanted to run it on something cheaper.

Diesel and petrol were cheap back then. A barrel of crude oil cost less than $US20. Now that oil costs a whole lot more, Cliff's got an even better reason to thumb his nose at OPEC.

Cliff started some experiments. He connected a hose to his diesel motor and fed in 25 percent vegetable oil to see what would happen. Nothing happened - well nothing bad anyway. The bus engine ran normally. So he tried 50 percent veggie oil, then 75 percent and finally 100 percent. He drove the bus up and down the road until his 2 litres of pure veggie oil fuel ran out. There were no problems. Cliff was running on cooking ingredients.cliff6

He started collecting used oil from a local fish and chip shop. After filtering it, he found that the bus got 5.5 kilometres to the litre (about 13 miles to the gallon) on veggie oil - half a kilometre per litre more than regular diesel. Cliff's bus ran more efficiently on cooking ingredients.

"I got into the habit of going into fish and chip shops wherever I went," he said. By talking with them politely, Cliff forged working relationships with proprietors who were happy to hand over their used oil.

The process of filtering veggie oil for use as biodiesel is not complex, but it is time-consuming. Once Cliff has collected the oil, he brings it home to his workshop for processing. He filters it through a sieve first, then through filter paper and a car fuel filter. After this the oil goes into 44-gallon drums to sit. Sediment in the oil sinks to the bottom and Cliff extracts the cleaner oil from the top. This oil then goes through a new car filter completing the five-step filtration process.cliff7

Veggie oil needs to be warmed to reduce its viscosity so that it runs through an engine smoothly. Cliff had this aspect of his biodiesel system down pat. He ran his veggie oil through a brass pipe that hugged the hot engine. This heated the fuel, making it fine enough to power the car without any damage.

Cliff ran regular diesel through the engine for the first five kilometres of his journey until the engine warmed up. Then he got out, turned his diesel tap off and his warmed veggie oil tap on. Five kilometres before reaching his destination, he got out and turned the veggie oil tap off and the diesel tap on again, ready for the next time he fires the bus up.cliff4

Cliff started traveling the country, amassing relationships with fish and chip shop owners. His bus held 20x20-litre drums, enough to fuel the bus for 2,000 kilometres. He asked shopkeepers in the towns he passed through to save oil for him so that he'd have fuel for the trip home. In return he bought a $1 million lottery ticket for each of his fuel donators. He hadn't found out if any of them were winners yet.

He went to Darwin four times (a 6,100-kilometre round-trip journey) and Perth six times (a 5,400-kilometre journey). He's also been to Melbourne and Tasmania.

Recently, Cliff bought his Mercedes, a 28-year-old 300D in near-perfect condition. He paid a bit for it, but she's a beautiful machine. I'd have done the same, if I were Cliff.  The Merc has been converted to run on veggie oil, a retrofit Cliff performed in his own workshop. Since then, it's done 8,000 kilometres without a problem.cliff1

When Cliff travels long distances in the Merc, he pulls a trailer with up to 3,000 kilometres' worth of fuel on it. When he went to Sydney for the New Year's Eve fireworks he made friends with the owner of a motel along the way, and was able to leave his trailer at the motel while he drove on to his destination. He collected the rest of his fuel on the way home.

Here's some interesting math: It's a 2,800 kilometre round-trip; the Merc travels 100 kilometres on 8 litres of fuel (around 29 miles on a gallon); diesel at the pump costs nearly $AU1.35 per litre right now. The trip would have cost him $302 in fuel. It actually cost him $11. He could have stayed in a fancier motel if he wanted. 

Beyond the financial benefits, vegetable oil also has lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels, and the exhaust poses less of a health risk.

He gets the same top speed and similar mileage from veggie oil that he would from diesel at a cost of around 1 cent per kilometre, taking into account the cost of filters and lottery tickets. If he can keep his free veggie oil suppliers happy, and if other handy home mechanics don't start poaching his sources, he may just ride out this peak oil wave.

Related reading:
Agrofuels in Latin America
Eating the Sun: How Plants will Power the Planet


If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Lynn (anonymous)


Written in December 2008

William (anonymous)

Well written Kristy!

Written in December 2008

Andrew Port Broughton (anonymous)

When Cliff drives his Merc. around the town the smell of fish and chips wafts down the street and makes everyone feel hungry!

Written in December 2008

Claire Chandler (anonymous)

I don't know andrew, I think when Papa runs the merc on Donut Shop oil it smells wonderful and makes twice as many people ready for a coffee :)

Written in December 2008

Fe Schigulski (anonymous)

What an amazing man! Very clever! You are a genius! Well done!

Written in December 2008

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  • Posted on Dec. 5, 2008. Listed in:

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