Warehouse K
Kids At Work
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How Great Is A Car That Runs On Soybeans?


By James Donahue


It was in 2006 that CBS News’ traveling story teller Steve Hartman zeroed in on five West Philadelphia High School kids who designed a car that ran on soybeans. His story caused a stir among news anchors anxious to generate some good news in the midst of our 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. We also are being victimized by food commodity speculators that are buying up large quantities of grain and other food products to force up the price of the food that is on the market. So 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 know, as I noted above, 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. Turning them loose on this international fuel problem may someday produce an idea that might really make a difference. The problem lies in converting their ideas to a practical application for everyday living.


For now, we fear that the best solution is to give up our love for the automobile and change our life styles to rely on mass transit systems. High speed rail systems and bus programs are already instituted and heavily used throughout Europe and the Far East. America is lagging far behind.


After reeling from the disaster of the Gulf oil spill, however, it should wake folks up to the fact that it is time to park those magnificent cars and start taking the bus. That is….as soon as a bus service becomes available. Or a train service. Or perhaps a rickshaw?