Video: Fuel up on vegetable oil

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updated 8/26/2005 2:36:15 PM ET 2005-08-26T18:36:15

Soaring gas prices are pushing drivers to get creative.  Now, instead of draining your wallet at the gas station or running on empty, there is another option. With a diesel engine and quick conversion, you can just head over to the greasy spoon down the street, fill yourself up and then do the same for your car.

When Mike Paulson heads to his neighborhood Chinese restaurant to fill up, he skips the kitchen and heads straight to the back alley where the grease from last night's dinner will power his car for the next few days.  That’s deep fried fuel for a car that's strictly vegetarian. 

”People are usually laughing and they'll pull up to me and ask me if I'm frying French fries inside,” says Paulson.

Paulson is one of the estimated 5,000-plus American drivers going from gas to grease —converting diesel engines to run on free vegetable oil.

Most restaurant owners are happy to give away their used oil, otherwise they must pay to have it removed, which can cost.  The converted say their oil engines run, well, like butta'.

Critics say the oil may damage the car, and drivers run the risk of voiding a manufacturer's warranty.  But at Grease Car, the four-year-old Massachusetts company that converted Paulsen's car, no one is worried.

Greasecar founder Justin Carven says their customers trouble-free record speaks for itself.  He says, “The only difference is the emissions are generally cleaner and the odor of the exhaust of course changes.”

Carven manufactures and installs conversion kits nationwide.  Conversions range from $800 to $1,200.

To him, “when you're looking at over $2.50 per gallon, it just makes all the sense in the world.”

Paulsen, who used to spend as much as $240 a month in gas, agrees.  “It's a nice environmental gesture but that wasn't my decision-making,” says Paulsen.  “I wanted something to save me money." 

The idea is not a new one. Rudolf Diesel first invented the diesel engine back in the 1890s.  At its debut at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris it ran on peanut oil.

And the people at Greasecar say they're taking that old concept and re-packaging it for modern needs.

Here's how it works.  The diesel engine starts the car, heating the vegetable oil to thin it.  A temperature gauge tells you when it's safe to switch from deisel to oil — usually a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on how cold it is outside.  Hit a small red button and you're cookin' — without gas.

Monica Novotny reports for 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann'.  The show airs weeknights at 8 p.m. ET. on MSNBC.

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