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Of Flying Frisbees and Veggie-Powered Fuel

These are not your run-of-the-mill, Frisbee-loving hippies with lofty ideals but a vague handle on the specifics. These Ultimate Frisbee players have made tangible the goal of sustainable, environmentally friendly travel. This summer, when the rubber hits the road, fifteen Dartmouth students cum Ultimate players will drive cross-country and back in a converted school bus powered by waste vegetable oil fuel. In English, that's used french fry grease.

Fifteen Dartmouth students will drive cross-country this summer in a converted school bus powered by waste vegetable oil.

The students conceived of the project, which they dubbed The Big Green Bus, while brainstorming ideas for transporting a portion of the College's seventy-plus Ultimate team members to a tournament near Seattle in July. Four of the team members are engineering majors, and another four are environmental studies majors. Armed with technical knowledge, plenty of willing labor, and grants from both the Thayer School of Engineering and the Department of Environmental Studies, the group purchased the thirty-seven-foot yellow school bus for $2,500 and began the arduous work of converting the diesel engine to run on simple vegetable oil.

Unlike the more well-known fuel biodiesel, which is produced by chemically modifying vegetable oil in an expensive and time-consuming process, The Big Green Bus runs on unmodified vegetable oil, tossed out by the gallon every day at greasy spoons and fast-food restaurants all over the country. To use the oil, the students added a second fuel tank to hold the vegetable oil. The bus starts on normal diesel fuel and uses heat from the engine to warm the vegetable oil, lowering its viscosity and allowing it to flow through the engine.

The students remodeled the bus's interior as well as its engine. They stripped the interior to fill the front half with tables and chairs and outfitted the rear with sleeping accommodations. Even a full-sized school bus may be close quarters for fifteen people doing nearly a summer's worth of driving, but as organizer Aekta Shah '05 explains, "It started as fifteen friends who wanted to hang out after graduation."

Since its inception, however, the project's mission has evolved well beyond the initial need for transportation and a last hurrah. Dedicated evangelists of both Ultimate Frisbee and alternative fuels, the project's organizers are relying on the nationwide community of Ultimate Frisbee players to connect the tour with hosts and sponsors at each stop. In addition to presentations at Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, The Big Green Bus will promote alternative fuels through environmental action fairs, local alternative-fuels interest group meetings, and other community gatherings. Although the itinerary is still in flux, the group expects to make at least a dozen stops, a number that could easily rise as interest from other Ultimate Frisbee communities grows.

According to the project's head of outreach, Andrew Hoffman '05, the message is simple: "A simple and plentiful resource fuels the bus. At present, restaurants across the nation discard it every day. We refine and reuse the waste, shaping society's waste into social energy," he says. "The world's increasing dependence on fossil fuel consumption necessitates research in, and a quick transition to, alternative energy sources. The Big Green Bus shows that fuel alternatives are available for use right now."

In fact, spreading the word has been part of the process almost since the beginning. The group's website offers information about the project, including an MTV-inspired video trailer documenting the bus conversion. The website also includes detailed statistics about fuel economy, alternatives to fossil fuels, and a tutorial on Ultimate Frisbee.

These idealists are light years away from protest marches and drum circles. The Big Green Bus club is made up of practical, savvy activists with an eye for messaging and presentation. In fact, when the project was founded, the group divided into four committees: engineering, logistics, finance, and publicity.

The tour leaves Hanover this month for its circuitous route to the July 2 tournament in Seattle and will then continue spreading the word until the end date in early August.


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Last Updated: 5/30/08