University of Vermont

University Communications


Biodiesel for a Buck

Senior’s project starts when he talks agencies into donating a van for a planned national alternative-energy tour

By Jon Reidel Article published February 2, 2005

Zach Carson
The road ahead: Senior Zach Carson wrote 150 letters to receive this shuttle bus, which he plans to convert to run on biodiesel for a cross-country tour evangelizing the technology. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

The trip wasn’t going as smoothly as Zach Carson had planned. It was getting dark and the senior environmental studies major was about to bed down in the back of a broken down 1997 shuttle bus in the parking lot of a K-Mart on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.

Carson had picked up the 24-foot, 17-passenger shuttle bus the day before in Detroit at the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, which, along with the Community Transportation Association of America, agreed to sell it to him for $1 with the understanding that he’d convert it to run on vegetable oil (waste grease from restaurants) as part of his senior project.

Less than 90 minutes into the trek back to Burlington, the former airport shuttle with 110,000 miles on it filled with smoke and stalled. Carson, a self-described non-mechanic, got it started after filling it up with oil and other fluids, only to have the starter quit a few hours later, prompting the K-Mart sleepover. Although the bus started the next day, Carson said he didn’t shut it off again until he and his friend hit Burlington 17 hours later.

Scheduled to graduate in May, Carson hopes the Detroit experience isn’t a precursor to his upcoming spring trip through Vermont, and a nationwide summer tour during which he will attempt to educate people about the benefits of biodiesel and other energy saving techniques as part of his senior thesis for ENVS 202.

Total conversion
The elaborateness of the tour will depend on how much money Carson raises. He has already applied for grants and plans to hold fundraisers. He has also worked out a sponsorship deal with Chelsea Green Publishing to promote and sell their book Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy while on the road at national music festivals, summer camps, national parks and transportation conferences.

Carson is currently working on tearing out the inside of the bus and installing beds, shelves, a desk, a hammock, and a small kitchen equipped with an old fryer to serve as both food source and fuel tank so he can “cook French fries for people, then drive away with the oil I cook with.” Energy-efficient light bulbs and solar panels will power his computer and other multimedia for presentations. “I want to show ways to cut down on fossil fuels. There’s tons of ways everyone can do this easily,” Carson says.

Carson launched a Website fossilfreeway that will provide live updates from the road and Internet links giving examples of ways to cut down on fossil fuels. A friend minoring in film plans to create a documentary based on the trip. “The goal is to educate people about alternative fuel options: the environmental and health problems associated with burning fossil fuels, why it’s important to start looking into other options and what will happen if we don’t. Mainly, I’m trying to promote healthier ways of living.”

The idea for the project grew out of trips to Johannesburg and Costa Rica. There Carson met a group of people who had driven school buses down from California, and were planning to start a fuel company using 500 gallons of vegetable oil a week from McDonald’s.

“There was a lot of talk in Johannesburg about the pollution cars were causing and the price of gas. That way of life just got me thinking of ways we can live healthier using local natural resources,” he recalls.

Carson, who wrote 150 letters in search of a vehicle, also credits Fred Schmidt, associate professor of Community Development and Applied Economics, with putting him in touch with the right people to get the bus. “Fred’s the main reason this project is going on. He was on the board of the CTAA and he hooked me up with the right people and found me a bus.”

Promoting another energy option
Having taken a number of energy-related courses, Carson says he’s not under the illusion that the whole country is going to start using vegetable oil for fuel and rainwater to wash dishes as he plans to do on the road. But with oil supplies arguably peaking, he sees the time as right to get people thinking about the next source of energy

“Running straight vegetable oil isn’t something that’s possible for the whole country to switch to,” Carson says. “But it can help. There’s about 400,000 school buses in the country that run on diesel that could be converted, and that would help. I’m convinced that biodiesel is definitely going to be the next energy source.”

Having grown up outside Philadelphia and spending most of his life in the Northeast, Carson says he’s eager to experience other parts of the country so he can better understand people in other regions. He’s particularly interested in going to the South where he can, he says, “hit up some people who think I’m crazy and don’t want to hear anything about this kind of stuff.”

“The festivals will be a fun stopping ground, but I want to go to parts of the South where I won’t be preaching to the choir,” Carson says.

For more information on the project contact Carson at