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A biodiesel odyssey

Some people travel in order to find themselves. Others travel to find sources of clean, renewable fuels.

Last April, exactly 50 years after Jack Kerouac published “On the road,” one of the defining novels of the Beat Generation, a group of young professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., to embark on a very different kind of road trip.

Kerouac’s novel chronicled a spontaneous series of journeys motivated by obsessive friendships, drug-induced hallucinations, and existential yearning. The Washington group, by contrast, set out to prove that fuels derived from plants and animal fats offer an affordable and appropriate solution to the energy needs of both rich and developing countries.

Two of the cars that participated in the Greaseball Challenge rally.

Acid trippers versus eco-missionaries? Not quite: there are significant parallels between the two journeys. The ecstatic characters in “On the Road” start out in New York and range as far south as Mexico City, stopping at several seedy hotels on the way. The participants in the “Greaseball Challenge” car rally—a total of 19 travelers in 5 vehicles—drove from Washington to Mexico, and on through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. And they, too, slept in budget-priced lodgings.

Moreover, both trips had many moments that must be described as surreal, even if the word tends to be overused in references to Kerouac and his psychedelic contemporaries.

Here is Kerouac’s account of a pit stop near El Paso, Texas: “We got out of the car to examine an old Indian ruin. Dean did so stark naked. Marylou and I put on our overcoats.”

Fast-forward to 2007. Here is Suzanne Hunt, co-pilot of an ancient Volkswagen pickup, updating her “Notes from the Road” blog: “Ciudad de Mexico has pleasantly surprised me, with its colorful quarters and extremely friendly people. We also have filled up our tanks and canisters with grease at the Hard Rock Café.”

That’s right. The cars were fuelled, in part, by worn-out grease drained from the vats that enable Hard Rock Cafés to cook millions of French fries and chicken wings each day. Prior to Mexico City, the cars had made “grease-stops” at Hard Rock Cafés in Washington, Nashville and Memphis. (To understand how this works, please see sidebar at right, “Interview with Greaseball Challenge participant Suzanne Hunt”).

Filling the canisters with cooking oil near Amatitlán, Guatemala.

According to its website, the first ever Greaseball Challenge was “a charity biofuel car rally from the United States to Central America. Inspired by the tradition of the classic car race, Greaseball is a cross-continental adventure promoting sustainability on a shoestring using renewable fuels.”

The rules required participating teams to obtain a vehicle for as little money as possible, adapt it to run on any kind of renewable fuel, drive all the way to Costa Rica, and then donate the car to an environmental project. Sponsorships from the IDB and other companies and organizations helped to cover the teams’ food, lodging and mechanical expenses. (For details, see link to Greaseball Challenge website on the right).

As they traveled, the members of the Greaseball caravan stopped frequently to visit companies that produce biofuels, talk to reporters and energy policymakers, and answer questions from curious bystanders.

For Hunt, who shared driving duties with Jean-Philippe Denruyter, a Belgian citizen who is BioEnergy Director at the World Wildlife Fund, the trip offered an excellent opportunity to conduct field research. A former director of the Worldwatch Institute’s bioenergy program, Hunt is now an independent consultant specializing in renewable fuels and other environmental issues. While at Worldwatch she coordinated the publication of “Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century” (see link at right to obtain a copy).

As described in her “Notes from the road” blog, Hunt found that small-scale biofuel production is rapidly taking hold in Mexico and Central America. She came back from her trip with a rich understanding of the limitations and opportunities offered by alternative fuels in developing countries, and of what it will take to foster large-scale production in a sustainable way (See link to read the full blog, available in English only).

Readers afflicted with wanderlust and a passion for the environment can sign up to participate in next year’s Greaseball Challenge (see website for details).

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Please write to editor@iadb.org