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For two-and-a-half years, Kevin Herschman has struggled with his homemade vegetable oil storage unit strapped to the bed of his goliath truck — a beat-up red Ford F250 that runs on pure vegetable oil. He plans to go on the road with his truck and a hot air balloon he built in order to stir discussions about alternative energy. To learn more or sign up for a balloon ride, visit Herschman's Web site, http://pro-creation.us.

Q: How did you get the truck?

A: I went to school in Overland, Ohio, and there was a guy who had a garage where he did conversions for people in the community. I was friends with his mechanic, and I convinced myself you could drive a diesel truck on pure vegetable oil, so I set out about acquiring an old truck.

  It's a really simple modification. All you're doing is cleaning the fuel and heating it before it gets into the engine, so it seemed like a pretty reasonable thing for me to take on as an amateur mechanic. I'd never worked on a truck before, but I've been able to figure it out as I go along — a lot of trial and error, but it's worked.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of how you get the vegetable oil and how it runs through the truck?

A: Most restaurants that use a fryer are throwing away used oil pretty regularly. Sometimes they get paid a little bit for it — $10 for 150 gallons, or $10 for 200 gallons. It doesn't have a whole lot of value to them, so it's not too hard to get it from people. ... It's a waste product, and at this point in time without a big industry of biodiesel, it's fairly easy to get your hands on — though it won't be after this article.

  So I get this junk oil, and I have to clean it. Think about dropping a piece of chicken in a deep fryer. There's moisture in that chicken, which ends up in the oil, suspended, which would ruin my truck if I left that in there. There are lots of different ways (to get the water out). Because I try to do mine while I'm moving around the country without a steady location, I have a centrifuge mounted in the back of the truck, which uses centripetal force to spin the debris and the water out, like a ride at the fair. The water and the particles are heavier than the oil, so they stick to the outside. It allows me to take crap oil and turn it into beautiful, super-clean oil. Then it goes in my rear tank, which has a heater in it, which is heated by engine coolant. Once my truck is running and gets warm, the oil is warm in the tank, I flip the switch, and I'm burning vegetable oil. It comes up to the front, it gets heated again, and that's it. And the exhaust smells good.

  You can go and spend $1,200 to order a kit to convert your truck that will work pretty foolproof and can be installed for not that much money, but I've done it in a very piece-at-a-time, how-little-can-I-do-and-get-away-with-it (way) ... and I've done it for really cheap.

Q: What kind of mileage does the truck get?

A: Same as diesel. With this truck, I get 15 miles to the gallon, towing. My friend has a Volkswagen Jetta she converted. She gets 30. Vegetable oil doesn't change your mileage.

Q: Is this something anyone can do?

A: A lot of people try and sell it as really simple. The truck's meant to burn diesel, so getting it to run on something else is an ongoing process. It isn't a perfectly clean and simple thing. I've had the adage reinforced that nothing is really free. Even though I'm getting fuel for free, I'm paying for it with time and filtering it, the materials I use to filter it. I'm definitely coming out ahead financially, but it's not just like, "Yeah, drive your truck anywhere you want for free!" It's an ongoing relationship. It's such a good feeling to drive 500 miles on nothing but free vegetable oil.

Q: Tell me about your balloon. How does that play into this?

A: I built it myself. It's a small balloon, kind of like a sports car, like a Miata. I've always been obsessed with flying; I've had a license since high school. The truck really came with the balloon thing. A big part of having the balloon is being able to move it around on the ground and have the vehicle follow you while you're in the sky. Now I can drive a huge truck and not feel guilty about it. It's allowed me to be able to do my balloon as much as I wanted. I've been able to go all over the country and fly a lot, and it's a lot because of the truck. It's a perfect match.

click to enlarge Kevin Herschman's pickup truck has a DIY centrifuge for cleaning oil - and a tank for heating it. - PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
  • Photo by Alex Woodward
  • Kevin Herschman's pickup truck has a DIY centrifuge for cleaning oil and a tank for heating it.
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