What seats 11, gets good mileage and smells like French fries when it rolls down the street?

The Colorado College Veggie Van.

The diesel-powered van, which has been on the road for a little more than a year, can run on waste vegetable oil from cooking operations at the school's cafeteria, as well as diesel.

But the process isn't as simple as dumping grease from the frying pan into the fuel tank. A handful of students known as the "Green Team" worked Monday to harvest, filter, and store the oil in the loading dock behind Rastall Dining Hall.

The students, wearing disposable white coveralls and rubber gloves, drained the oil from the cafeteria's compost bins into a 50-gallon drum. They then pumped the viscous liquid through a filter into another barrel, where it was heated to a thinner consistency and spun in a centrifuge to remove impurities.

"It's a great repurposing of our food," said Green Team member Emma Gonzales, her coveralls splotched with grease from head to toe. "It's a really cool cycle because I'm going to work hard cranking this oil this afternoon and then go and eat some greasy food in Rastall tonight and be directly contributing."

The roughly two-hour process happens a few times a semester, yielding 30 to 40 gallons of final product on each occasion, said Gonzales, a sophomore at Colorado College.

"It's just a small step," she said. "The tons of burned gas going into the atmosphere we're saving is not that significant - it's a blip in (fighting) climate change. But it's also very educational. We're trying to raise awareness and promote sustainability."

The van, painted with corn stalks and other leafy crops, is mostly used for school-sponsored activities such as hiking and backpacking, said Ryan Hammes, director of Outdoor Education for Colorado College. The school hired a local mechanic to install a second metal fuel tank, specifically designed to hold vegetable oil, on the underside of the vehicle after they purchased it.

"We just thought this would be a great opportunity to have a little bit less carbon footprint and make it educational for the students at the same time," Hammes said.

While the van can run on diesel fuel, it automatically uses the vegetable oil fuel first when full, Hammes said. The diesel fuel is slightly more efficient at about 15 to 16 miles per gallon, while the vegetable oil usually nets about 14 mpg.

Other colleges, including Loyola University Chicago and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., have similar biofuel-powered vehicles, he said.

Monday's work session attracted a cluster of curious students, including several interested in a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

"Finding ways we can be more sustainable is not only important," said Brian Leech, a freshman majoring in environmental science who stopped by to watch the Green Team in action. "It's interesting."


Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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