About a month ago, Marilyn Megenity walked into an auto shop in lower downtown and posed a somewhat unusual proposition.
"I just bought a diesel-engine Mercedes, and I'm hoping to convert it to run on vegetable oil," she told the mechanic.
He paused for a moment, looked at Megenity, looked at her car.
"He thought about it for a second and then he just said, 'Oh, yeah. We can do that.'"
An astrologer, activist, chef and proprietor of the Mercury Cafe, the willowy-haired Megenity is among a growing fleet of drivers in Colorado and across the nation who are discovering that they can, in fact, run their cars, vans, city buses and eighteen-wheelers on biodiesel, an alternative fuel hybrid processed from everything from soybeans and sunflowers to bacon fat and reconstituted grease from McDonald's Happy Meals. Bio-believers regard the vegetable-based fuel as the ultimate form of recycling -- and one possible solution to a number of political, ecological and automotive ailments, including the greenhouse effect and international terrorism.
"Biodiesel is better for the environment, far less toxic than regular gasoline, and you don't have to go to war for it," Megenity says. "You don't have to connect yourself to the gangster Mafia in order to get it. The same group of people that stifled wind energy and solar energy has propagandized the auto industry to the point that people believe everyone needs a car. In fact, what we need to do is consume less."
Megenity has never been a big driver. Long a fan of Ralph Nader, she tried to start a boycott on the combustion engine in the '70s. Most days, she walks to and from her house in Denver's uptown neighborhood to the Mercury's home on 21st Street, accompanied by her dog, Louisa. "I've been irritated by cars my whole life, and I have felt guilty about driving in the past. Really, I've always found the traffic to be annoying. I mean, do we really need more stress in our lives?"
But Megenity's wheels began spinning when she read From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, Joshua Tickell's book about vegetable-based fuel. While most Americans regard its use as a new, even harebrained, notion, Tickell points out that plant power is as old as the diesel engine itself. When Dr. Rudolf Diesel debuted his new engine at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, he ran the thing on peanuts -- literally. Some early-American locomotives used vegetable fuel, as well. But it was Tickell's explanation of exactly how a person could operate a car without ever spending a dime on traditional gasoline that immediately grabbed Megenity.
"I just realized that I needed to do this because of my own political frustration with the government," she says. "The world's events this year irritated me more than they usually do, and this whole idea was so exciting."
In April, Megenity gave up her gas-powered Toyota and bought a 1982 Mercedes diesel sedan she found in the paper for $2,000; then she signed up for biodiesel delivery service from Hill Petroleum, which drops off fifty-gallon batches to her home. The fuel costs about a dollar more than conventional diesel, but Megenity says she gets between thirty and forty miles to the gallon -- better than the new line of fuel-efficient Hondas and Volkswagens. She hasn't visited a gas station since she bought the car, and she doesn't plan to anytime soon -- or ever.
Megenity -- never one to do things in halves when she can go over the top -- isn't stopping there. She's hired friend and artist Tiffany Smith to paint the car with blazing colors and logos announcing its fuel source, as well as with a banner for www.greasecar.com, the digital hub for veggie-car proponents. In the meantime, she's slapped a sticker on the back window -- "This Mercury Cafe PEACEMOBILE runs on vegetable oil" -- and has toured the car around town, talking to people about it at events such as the Memorial Day parade.
"I have been driving a little more now that I have the car. I'm even thinking about taking it camping," she says. "When people see the car, they just can't believe it. They ask so many questions; they get so shocked and excited. A lot of them react like, 'Oh, we want to do it, too!' This is the ultimate form of recycling, and to spread this message and make this known to the public, people have to see the car."
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Megenity's isn't the only bio-powered auto on area roads. In April, 21-year-old engineering student Andrew Azman convinced the University of Colorado at Boulder to power an older campus Buff Bus on converted cafeteria grease collected from the school's kitchens, and the Boulder Biodiesel Collective makes and distributes its own biodiesel to paying members. (The Eldorado Market, Rollinsville County Store and Bandimere Speedway in Morrison all recently installed biodiesel pumps; the fuel is currently not available at any gas station in Denver.) After the Environmental Protection Agency recognized biodiesel as a clean-burning, engine-efficient fuel with lower emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide than regular petroleum diesel or gasoline, the cities of Lakewood and Breckenridge and the Littleton School District also began filling some of their tanks with B20, a diesel mixture that contains twenty percent biodiesel. ARTBUS, driven by a collective of anarchists and artists, is entirely plant-and-grease-propelled.
Soon Megenity's car will be, too. She's planning to outfit the Benz with a vegetable-oil conversion system (kits are available through greasecar.com) that will allow her to power the car almost entirely on grease or vegetable oils rather than a biodiesel blend; the viscous stuff can be poured directly from an oily skillet into a converted car's engine. Some of Megenity's fuel will come from her own kitchen, but because the Cafe's fryer uses only small amounts of waste -- french fries are the only conventionally fried item on the health-conscious Merc's menu -- Megenity plans to get the bulk of her grease from other restaurants and rendering plants, which process used oil for local eateries.
So, what if Megenity were to run out of, say, canola oil in the middle of nowhere? In a pinch, she could fill her tank with regular diesel, pick up a bottle of Wesson, or "find a Burger King and beg their grease," she says. Who would have thought the by-products of all those Whoppers might someday be viewed as a world-saving salve? Bio-boosters envision a time when, in addition to tapping the nationwide network of grease-pumping fast-food outlets, crops will be grown specifically as fuel sources. Soybeans, in particular, may one day provide the turbo in your tank as well as the tofu on your table.
At the moment, the only potential drawback for Megenity is that her car might make her hungry for unhealthy foods. "When I turn it on, there's a little puff of smoke," she says, "and sometimes it smells a little bit like french fries."