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Kids Build Car That Runs On Soybeans


By James Donahue

March 2006


When CBS News’ traveling story teller Steve Hartman recently zeroed in on five West Philadelphia High School kids who designed a car that runs on soybeans, the story caused a stir among news anchors anxious to generate some good news in the midst of a growing global oil crisis.


The story gave a gleaming review of the ingenuity of these kids who participated in a shop program that involved redesigning an existing car engine and carburetion system to burn alternative fuels.


That competition has been going on for a long time in high schools all across the United States. As a reporter in the field in both Michigan and Arizona, I covered a few interesting automobile creations myself, developed by innovative high schoolers with the help of energy conscious shop instructors.


The soybean car isn’t that spectacular and here is why.


Actually, the vehicle doesn’t run on soybeans, but rather a bio-diesel fuel developed from soybeans. Bio-diesel can be manufactured from any vegetable that produces oil, and that includes canola, rapeseed, mustard, palm oil, hemp, used vegetable oils and even animal fats. A diesel engine operates at a higher temperature than a gasoline engine so it can be fueled by this oil once it is heated.


While vegetable oils are found to produce less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based fuels, they still produce some emissions. And the processing of the bio-diesel at refineries also calls for the burning of energy that is not earth friendly.


The worst part of shifting from petroleum to vegetable oils to run our cars, factories and heat our homes is that the entire concept calls for a very large amount of farmland dedicated simply to the production of fuel. We are living on an already overpopulated world where a lot of people are not getting enough to eat now. How can we sacrifice food production to make fuel to run our cars?


This article has only grazed the surface of the fallacies hidden in the Hartman whiz kid report from West Philadelphia. Hartman needed a feature story and kids making alternative fuel cars always makes a good one. I have written my share of them.


Kids can always find nifty ways to make an engine run that breaks the rules set by automobile manufacturers. The problem lies in converting their ideas to a practical application for everyday living.



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