If at first you don’t succeed…
Student’s vegetable-oil-powered car makes it from Virginia to Alaska and back
|Courtesy of Luke Scruby
By Charlotte Crystal
Luke Scruby had his heart set on traveling to Alaska this summer with his older sister Emily and his friend Scott Wilcox. Their goal was to see some of the country’s most stunning scenery and demonstrate the viability of biofuel.
Last spring, Scruby, a fourth-year U.Va. student in mechanical engineering, retrofitted the trio’s 1984, diesel-powered school bus with some extra fuel tanks and a filtering system that would allow them to fill up with used vegetable oil. They bypassed the grease vats of fast-food restaurants, “because their grease is disgusting,” Luke Scruby said. Instead, they preferred the cleaner waste oil from Mexican, Thai and family restaurants. “Ruby Tuesday often had good grease,” he said.
The trio left Charlottesville on May 28, but by the time they reached Northern Arkansas, fuel was leaking into the engine oil. They spent six days at a Budget Inn in Palmyra, Mo., waiting for delivery of a new $2,800 fuel pump for their $2,600 bus. A few hundred miles and several oil changes later, they knew the problem had not been solved.
“As we sputtered to a coughing halt,” Scruby said, “we realized that the end was nigh.”
“Doris” was done for and the trio called for a tow. They stripped what equipment they could from the bus, piled it into a U-Haul truck and headed home. Returning two weeks after they had left, Emily Scruby, 23, returned to her job in Blacksburg. She is a Virginia Tech graduate working for Facility Dynamics Engineering. But Wilcox, 21, and Luke Scruby, 21, decided to give the trip another college try.
Back in Charlottesville, Wilcox landed a temporary job as a roofer and Scruby went to work, outfitting his 1976 Mercedes 240D diesel sedan for the trip to Alaska. He replaced the fluids, the alternator brushes, bought some new belts, made sure the spare tire was inflated and beefed up the springs to handle 300 pounds of filtering equipment and oil tanks, which he hastily packed into the trunk.
This time the 13,000-mile trip was a success. Scruby and Wilcox left on June 27 and returned on Aug. 15. They didn’t quite make it to their original goal — Prudhoe Bay, on the northern shore of Alaska — but crossed inside the Arctic Circle, reaching Dietrich Camp, a spot just south of the Brooks Mountain range on the Dalton Highway.
The pair were rewarded with breath-taking scenery and views of the abundant wildlife — golden and bald eagles, moose, caribou, black and brown bears, wolves, wolverines, beavers, big-horned Dall Sheep and shaggy Rocky Mountain goats. Later, on reaching the Pacific Ocean, they encountered sea otters and killer whales. They also fished for salmon — red, pink, silver and king.
The pair used only 50 gallons of diesel fuel for the trip, supplying the rest of their fuel needs with used vegetable oil. And they enjoyed many conversations with surprised travelers along the way. Scruby’s parents and his sister flew out to meet them in Alaska and hiked with them in Denali National Park and on the Kenai peninsula. Scruby and Wilcox also got a chance to do some fly-fishing — on an 8-weight fly rod, Scruby claims to have caught a king salmon more than 30 inches long and weighing more than 15 pounds (of course, there was another one that got away…).
Like all good things, the summer had to come to an end, and Scruby and
Wilcox had to head home. Wilcox left for Auburn University, where he studies agriculture, and Scruby returned to U.Va. This fall, the vegetable oil has been put on the back burner because of a full class load, but Scruby plans an independent study and a thesis that eplores the viability of biofuels.
Scruby expects to graduate in the spring of 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, a familiarity with the Arabic language, and a commission in the U.S. Navy. Even so, he will keep fond memories of his grease-powered trip to Alaska.
“We were tremendously lucky,” Scruby said. “The fishing was good, and the weather was excellent.”
And the car, with 400,000 miles on the odometer, ran great.