How to Break Your Car’s Addiction to Fossil Fuels


Photo: Ovcharenko

When it comes to making changes that will save the environment, most of us are completely paralyzed by the overwhelming size of the problem we’re facing. It’s so huge that it feels like any action we may personally take is completely useless. But the truth is, even small efforts can make an enormous difference if we all make them. The challenge today is for everyone to pick one thing they feel they can do to reduce their footprint: anything from showering with a friend to breaking your vehicle’s addiction to fossil fuels. Doing the latter isn’t as difficult as you might think. You don’t have to buy a whole new car just because you want to reduce your carbon tire print. There are a variety of options available to convert both diesel and gas powered vehicles to run on renewable energy sources like biofuels, natural gas or electricity. Keep in mind though, in the United States, all vehicle conversions (except battery powered electric vehicles) have to meet stringent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.


The Basics On Biofuels

Biofuels are renewable fuels made from plant material or animal waste (collectively known as biomass). The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates a six-fold increase in the use of biofuels by 2020 in the United States. Of particular interest are the liquid biofuels like ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas and straight vegetable oil (SVO), which are easier to use to fuel vehicles than solids would be.

Determining the relative impact of these different alternative energy options can be a bit convoluted and is hardly without conflict. For example, with liquid biomass you have to account for the economic and environmental cost of farming corn (for ethanol) or soybeans (for biodiesel). There are the tractors that till the soil, the fertilizers used, the freshwater diverted to irrigation, the harvesting and transportation and then the final processing and transportation to the distribution site. Plant-based biofuels have been termed carbon-neutral because the plants were drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grew and that is supposed to be counter-balancing the CO2 released when the fuel is converted into energy.

But critics contend that industrialized agriculture methods add pollution into the equation that isn’t being appropriately calculated. Likewise, some fear that pressure to create biofuels is leading to an increase in deforestation (in which forest is turned into cropland) and threatening the world’s food supply (there’s only a limited amount of arable land on which to grow corn, so when corn gets diverted to fuel vehicles, it comes out of our food supply.) According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “By 2007 about one-fifth of the corn output in the United States was allocated to the production of biofuel, and one study showed that even if all U.S. corn land was used to produce ethanol, it could replace just 12 percent of gasoline consumption.”

Fortunately, ethanol doesn’t have to steal food from our tables to feed our vehicles. More and more ethanol blends are being made from inedible parts of food plants or discarded materials like flat soda, wood chips, lawn clippings and waste beer. Companies including Coors are transforming spent yeast and waste beer from their brewing operations, into millions of gallons of ethanol.


The Ethanol Equation

Coors’ efforts are fitting because ethanol fuel is actually fermented biomass or ethyl alcohol, the same ingredient that gives alcoholic beverages their kick. Most cars on the road today can actually run on blends of up to 10 percent ethanol, without any kind of conversion. In fact, numerous states and municipalities are currently mandating the use of 10 percent ethanol gasoline; so unbeknownst to you, you may already be using an ethanol blend.

You may also be driving a flex vehicle without knowing it. Flex fuel is a motor fuel blend made up of mixing ethanol and gas in various quantities. One of the most common flex fuels, E85 contains eighty-five percent ethanol and fifteen percent gasoline. There are nearly 8 million Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) cruising American highways, capable of running on gasoline or ethanol blends (up to 85 percent). Surprisingly, the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says many FFV owners don’t even realize they are driving flex vehicles.

Even if you didn’t buy a Flexible Fuel Vehicle, you can still run your (non-diesel) car or truck on E85, by installing a conversion kit. The kit itself usually cost under $500 and you can save an additional fifty percent off if you’re willing to use a reconditioned kit like those from You also may need to change your spark plugs, tweak your carburetor and replace your fuel pump to make the most of the ethanol fuel. While you can always have a mechanic make the conversion, the kit is designed for the average consumer to install on her own. As with all conversion kits, make sure it meets federal and state standards before you buy.


The Biodiesel Option

Like ethanol, biodiesel is a renewable biofuel made from natural sources like soybeans and corn. But while ethanol is fermented, biodiesel is oil derived from the source and then submitted to transesterification, a chemical process that separates glycerin from the fat in the oil. Most experts contend that no conversion is necessary before a diesel engine can operate on processed biodiesel, but it’s still best to check with your auto’s manufacturer before you fill up.

You can also make your own biodiesel at home, with a processor like the $3,000 FuelMeister II, but just remember that it requires working with toxic materials like lye, methanol and glycerin. Lye is an acid that can eat through skin and bone and glycerin is a component in explosives, so unless you are very chemically inclined, please leave the biodiesel transesterification to the professionals.

On the other hand, you won’t have that same problem with another biofuel—one that’s frequently (if erroneously) confused with biodiesel: Straight Vegetable Oil.


Not Just for French Fries

Although it is often called biodiesel, straight vegetable oil (SVO) hasn’t earned that moniker because it hasn’t undergone the stringent chemical processing that biodiesels must be subjected to in order to be legally designated biodiesel. The original confusion seems to have arisen because the fuel is biological and only diesel engines can be converted to run on SVO.

Before we go any further, it‘s important to note that the federal government doesn’t recognize SVO as an approved fuel. Conspiracy theorists suggest this is because it bypasses the normal (taxable) distribution chain and there’s no SVO industry to lobby for it’s approval, but the EPA insists that used vegetable oil isn’t registered by the EPA as motor vehicle fuel because it violates the Clean Air Act. Whomever you believe, the bottom line is that the federal government considers SVO fuels illegal and can issue a hefty fine. We certainly aren’t recommending you break the law, but knowledge is power and here’s what we learned about converting vehicles to run on SVO.

SVO is the same kind of oil most of us use for cooking. But buying canola oil from the grocery store and pouring it straight into your tank isn’t very cost effective. So most people who use it prefer to obtain used cooking oil from sources like fast-food restaurants. Currently SVO is considered a waste product and therefore can be obtained very inexpensively (often even for free). If demand rises for this alternative fuel source, expect prices to escalate.

Because used cooking oil can have waste materials like French fry remnants floating in it, it must be filtered before it can be run through your converted engine. Running several thousand dollars, conversion kits are available from places like and That price, which depends on the vehicle model and the size of the tank, doesn’t include the installation. Still, SVO users insist they make their money back quickly through the dramatic reduction in their fuel costs.

Even after it has been converted to run on SVO, a diesel engine still needs diesel to start and stop (the reason for the second tank), because the vegetable oil is thicker and needs to be heated first to flow as well as diesel. Although a few conversion kit companies maintain that SVO actually runs through the engine even when it’s cold, most install a heating element to warm the oil. A manual lever is flipped in the cabin to switch from diesel to SVO and back again. At the end of a trip, the driver switches back to diesel, to ensure the vegetable oil gets cleared from the fuel line so it doesn't get clogged when the engine is started cold.


The Natural Gas Alternative

When it comes to natural gas, most people assume it’s a nonrenewable, fossil fuel resource that’s only used for stovetop cooking and heating houses. That’s certainly true for the majority of the natural gas currently used in the United States. Like other fossil fuels, natural gas was formed from deposits laid down hundreds of million of years ago.

But other sources of methane gas—the primary component of natural gas—can be found in much younger deposits that are much closer to the surface of our planet. In fact, methane is an unfortunate byproduct of beef and milk production: it’s released into the atmosphere through decomposing cow pies. Capturing methane from cow poop (and from organic matter rotting in land fills) makes the gas a renewable energy source that has the added advantage of preventing the greenhouse gas from escaping into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

Natural gas also burns cleaner than gasoline and diesel, so its use reduces harmful emissions. This is one reason so many countries around the world are relying more and more on natural gas to power vehicles (there are reportedly 8 million natural gas powered vehicles world wide). As yet, it’s not particularly common in the United States, and the cost of converting is prohibitive for most. Still, it is possible to convert your gas car to operate on a compressed version of natural gas (CNG).

Costs to convert to CNG range from about $12,500 to $22,500 depending on the vehicle, engine, certified mechanic (this is definitely not something you want to try at home) and size of CNG tanks—compressed gas cylinders can run $10,000 to $12,000 each! Fortunately, there are significant federal and state tax rebates and other incentives that can dramatically reduce those expenses, including a federal income tax credit that offsets 50-80 percent of the conversion costs.

But there are a few caveats: first, you must start with a newer vehicle; second, you need to plan for refueling. There are only 800 CNG refueling stations across the country, and not all of them are open to the public. If you can’t get access to one, you can have a fueling device installed in your own garage. It wouldn’t actually store CNG, instead it would attach to a pre-existing household supply of natural gas and compresses the gas to fill the vehicle.


The Electric Boogaloo

Converting a gasoline or diesel vehicle to electric requires replacing the internal combustion engine with an electric motor and a bank of batteries. You can get the conversion done for under $10,000 and then get a tax credit for 10 percent of the cost (up to $4,000). The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides a tax credit for plug-in electric drive conversion kits installed before Dec. 31, 2011.

Or, if you are mechanically inclined, you might want to tackle the conversion yourself. Through companies like you can buy a step-by-step how-to guide that promises to reduce your overall costs to as low as a few hundred dollars through clever recommendations that can help you find the parts needed for little or no cost. Rather than converting a vehicle you already own, Electricity4gas recommends buying one with a manual transmission and good body but no working engine—since you’ll be removing the engine anyway (as well as exhaust and fuel systems including the gas tank).

Post conversion, you’ll have a zero-emissions vehicle that costs a few cents per mile to run and will rarely require mechanical service. Depending on the number of batteries you install your electric vehicle can go up to 80 miles between charges and max out between 50 and 90 miles an hour.

Just remember, whether you drive a diesel or gas powered vehicle there are options available to break your addiction to fossil fuels. Regardless of whether you have the skills to do it yourself or prefer to hire someone else to do the job, you can convert your vehicle to run on renewable energy sources like biofuels, natural gas and electricity. Whichever you choose, you’ll be saving the planet—and cold hard cash (although with some options, it may take a few years before you pass the break-even point).

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