As high gas prices portend the end of the cheap-oil age, the potential for a planet-wide upheaval in transportation also seems a real possibility. The U.S. imports more than 50 percent of its oil, most of it from the unstable Middle East.
Memphian Andrew Couch thinks he has a better idea: biofuels. Couch's company, Deep Fried Rides (DeepFriedRides.com), makes biodiesel out of waste cooking grease and retrofits cars to run on it. He's even planning to open an environmentally friendly gas station.
"It's got to happen," Couch declares. "It benefits the environment, aids in carbon reduction, and it's domestic and renewable. We can grow it, and we can grow it again. There's no need to go to a foreign source."
The idea isn't new. The diesel engine and Henry Ford's Model T were both originally designed to run on biofuel, Couch says, but petroleum eventually won out.
Now, many analysts say we've passed the peak of global oil production. As more countries industrialize, competition for the oil that remains drives prices even higher.
The recently passed National Energy Bill is loaded with giveaways to big oil and coal producers, but it also increases tax incentives for biofuel. In addition, a coalition of 30 governors recently urged the federal government to do even more to promote the transition to renewable fuel.
Other countries are already embracing the concept. Brazil, for example, encourages the use of ethanol made from sugar cane, and biofuel proponents say there's no reason that practice can't take hold here. Many new cars sold in the U.S. are "flex-fuel"-designed -- meaning they can run on ethanol or petroleum.
Rolling along in Couch's mid-1980s black Mercedes diesel "greaser," you can't tell any difference between it and a gasoline-powered car. The fuel efficiency and acceleration are the same. The engine wears better too. And even taking into account the unmistakable odor of french fries or egg rolls, emissions are considerably lower.
Some states are moving to require a biofuel blend as a pollution-reduction measure. As Shelby County planners work to stay within federal Environmental Protection Agency standards, a biofuel-blend requirement could be an easy way to reduce local emissions.
Manufacturing plants that create fuel from waste oil and plant material are springing up around the country, and the trend is being pushed by the farm lobbies, which are interested in the economic prospects of growing fuel ingredients. The major oil corporations are getting involved as well and will buy all the biodiesel small companies can make, Couch says. Even singer Willie Nelson is getting into the sustainable-fuel game -- selling "BioWillie" to truckers in Texas.
Phillip Peeler recently converted his 1999 Volkswagen to run on grease. He says finding an alternative to oil is important for America.
"It's a good investment for the future, and the future is now," Peeler says. "When we do it ourselves, the money stays in our own country; it recycles and makes us stronger. The way things are now, we can't have an independent foreign policy because we have to do what [oil-producing countries] say or they will cut us off."
Couch will retrofit a car to run on grease for about $1,500. Conversion kits can be purchased at GreaseCar.com for $850, but Couch says if they're not installed correctly, a car's engine could be ruined.
Collecting grease for fuel requires a willing restaurant manager, a pump, and a strainer. The process takes 30 minutes to an hour, Couch says. Biodiesel or regular diesel is still needed to start a car and to turn it off, but Couch says one tank of biodiesel and several grease collections carried him almost 900 miles. Couch charges $2 a gallon for his fuel, which is cheaper than regular diesel.
"There's no reason why people with a diesel car shouldn't be running [biodiesel]," Couch says. "The driving culture isn't going anywhere. Even if all new cars were hydrogen-powered and solar, we'd still have these around for a while," he adds, pointing to a car he's converting to grease power.
"People have the future covered," he says. "I'm working on the right-now."
But Couch also has a vision for the future: his own solar-powered gas station that will be a model of convenience and sustainability, providing biodiesel fuel, recycled grease, engine retrofits, and natural snacks, topped off by full service with a smile.