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Competition Showcases Vehicles Powered By Cooking Oil, Solar Panels, and More

by on May 02, 2015 4:17 PM

To a restaurant chef, used fryer oil is garbage, a byproduct of the kitchen that no longer has any purpose.

For a car owner with a diesel engine, that fryer oil is fuel, and we're not talking about a science fiction movie here.

The 21st Century Automotive Challenge is taking place in State College this weekend, hosted by the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute. Running from April 30 to May 3, the competition pits cars against each other in a battle of alternative fuel sources.

Joel Anstrom is a research associate at Penn State's Institutes of Energy and the Environment, mainly studying advanced vehicle systems, such as hybrid electric automobiles. Anstrom is heading up the competition, which is in its ninth year overall and seventh year in State College.

"They compete against each other in terms of performance, fuel efficiency, cargo, seating, and all the kind of things a consumer would be interested in," Anstrom says. "The biggest categories are fuel economy, range, cargo capacity, carbon impact, and petroleum displacement. For instance, the fuels they use are rated in terms of carbon impact by the source, so most of them are using some kind of alternative fuel."

One of the competitors is Jonathan Bartlett, who drove his biodiesel-powered Volkswagen Beetle from central Massachusetts to central Pennsylvania for the weekend's events. Bartlett has been running his cars on biodiesel since 2001, when he had an epiphany that changed his outlook on fuel. 

"That decision goes back to a competition of a bunch of a Volkswagen diesel friends held at the salt flats in Utah," Bartlett says. "We got together and chipped in to enter a speed competition. When I saw the trail of soot my car left on the salt flats, I thought there was no way I could justify driving something that puts out this much dirt into the air. I started researching what I could use instead and I’ve been using biodiesel ever since."

Bartlett was particularly happy to get away from the snow up north to enjoy some springtime weather in State College, but it wasn't just the weather that inspired him to compete at the Automotive Challenge. 

"I’ve got plenty of vacation time from work so it’s a good weekend to come out," Bartlett says. "It’s good camaraderie and there’s good people here. It’s interesting to see what kind of technologies they’ve come up with for their cars."

Fortunately for Bartlett, he has the luxury of living near a biodiesel provider. 

"They take post-consumer cooking oil and convert it into fuel," he says. "It would normally be a waste product someone would have to pay to get rid of and instead turning it into something useful. It’s economically viable and has a very low carbon impact."

Biodiesel is a true way to live off the land, says Barlett. You can use any kind of fatty acid cooking oil, particularly those that grow locally, to fuel your diesel engine car.

"If you’re in the southwest and you can grow mustard easily in semi-arid conditions, you can use mustard seed oil," he says. "If you’re in the tropics, you can use canola and palm oil. Whatever grows well in indigenous areas can be used locally to provide fuel."

At the end of lunch, some of the competitors drove off for the afternoon. It would have been a typical sight, but something unusual stood out. Instead of a roaring engine and a trail of smoke, all that could be heard was a light hum and all that could be seen was clean air behind the vehicles.


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Zach Berger is the managing editor of He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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