Convert Your Car

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]

by Zoe Ginsburg


This year at University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Champaign- Urbana, about twenty students in the Social Advocacy II class focused on vegetable oil as alternative fuel for the semester project. There were five basic components to this project: converting a car to run on Straight Vegetable Oil (svo), researching and producing biodiesel, creating and teaching a curriculum about energy for two local third-grade classes, creating a documentary about how to convert your car, researching the social and environmental consequences of our dependency on oil, and finally, creating and publicizing an event that would bring our work to the local public.

The class presented at University of Illinois Engineering Fair, as well as an individual event called the “Grease Gala.” These events were essential to the success of the project because it brought the research and advancements to the community.

 In the beginning… 

In brainstorming project topics, we found it difficult to come up with a project that was both plausible and had local impact. Sexuality education, ethnocentrism, homelessness, high school dropout rates, and other topics, while important, were scrapped.


When cars that ran on vegetable oil were mentioned (and preliminary research was done on svo and biodiesel), the idea caught on with the class. The students liked the idea of working under the hood of the car. Because a car conversion itself would not keep 20 people busy for a semester, we decided to expand the scope of the project to focus on local awareness of biodiesel and fossil fuel dependence. A documentary and class for kids was promptly added to the project.


The idea of a media event came later, after having several articles written about our success at the University of Illinois Engineering Fair. We wanted the culmination of this work to be presented to the public in hopes of informing people about alternatives to their reliance on non-renewable forms of energy.


Social and environmental consequences

We realized we needed to look into why the work we were doing was important. This information was vital because then we recognized the timeliness of our project, considering the scale of the energy crisis we are in. We began the semester focusing on biodiesel and how it is made. At first, the social and environmental issues relating to fossil fuels weren’t really discussed. Half way through the project, an ad-hoc research group was organized for this task specifically.

Every person in the class had to research the consequences of fossilfuel usage. This provided a good knowledge base both for the class as a whole, and individually.


Looking back, separating into research groups from the beginning would have been more efficient and led to a fuller understanding of the issues at hand. Also, inviting guest speakers to specifically discuss social and environmental issues would have helped.

The guest speakers that we did have were purely biodiesel and svo experts. Overall, our class gained a good understanding of the problems relating to fossil fuel use.


Biodiesel production

In order to produce a working test batch of biodiesel, the following were required:

1: a viable instruction guide on the process of transesterification

2: a modified process scaled for small batches

3: proper materials to conduct the experiment

The process:
combine 3.5g sodium hydroxide (lye) and 200 milliliters of methanol to create the catalyst / reactant sodium methoxide.

The chemical reaction failed at first due to contamination of the sodium hydroxide by moisture in the air. The sodium methoxide was combined with 1 liter of storebought vegetable oil and left to sit. The molecules of fat were then broken down by the sodium methoxide into glycerin and methyl esters. This process is called transesterification. The products of this reaction are biodiesel and glycerin.

The major obstacle of producing biodiesel is set-up. The reaction is forgiving in that glass, plastic, or metal can be used as containers. During the transesterification phase, we found a paint mixer to be a good agitator.

The greatest shortcoming of this experiment was the usage of storebought vegetable oil. Creating biodiesel from waste vegetable oil would be more complicated, using either this or a similar model. The process would remain unchanged, but would require additional preliminary steps to filter and purify the oil. A second shortcoming was the small scale experiment; to be useful in the real world, we would need to expand our experiment.

Conversion group

The conversion group had the biggest monetary obstacles. We were in charge of raising the money to get a car, a mechanic, and a conversion kit, as well as the physical conversion itself. We managed to do all of those things successfully.

The first thing we did was get the car. A class member’s family had been interested in a svo car for some time, so they offered to buy a Mercedes diesel for a free conversion. We found the car after some Internet research and a few eventful field trips.

It was relatively simple to get a mechanic and a conversion kit. One other person in town had done an svo conversion, and we used the same mechanic, named Bernie. We found the conversion kit online at .

Though it was easy to find the conversion kit, it was hard to pay for it. We had several bake sales over the course of several weeks, and convinced several parents and members of the faculty to contribute money as well. Once we had all of this set up, it was time to convert the car. Overall, with Bernie’s help, it took us three Saturdays to do it.


All in all, our part of the project was very successful, but in retrospect we would have more time between the conversion and the event.


Kids group


When discussing the possibilities for different tasks within the larger project, a group of us decided it would be important to introduce biodiesel to elementary schools as a way to combine our interest in education with the focus of the project. Narrowing the focus of the project and providing age appropriate material were two initial obstacles.

Finally, we decided to present our lesson plan at two different schools, planning to spend one morning in each classroom. Both of the classrooms we taught were third grade. We chose to focus on more general ideas of pollution, consumption of natural resources, and alternative energy sources rather than the specifics of biodiesel and SVO.


We searched online for various lesson plans that would present these issues in an interactive and fun way, and came up with multiple games, including “Toil for Oil”. We also checked our lesson plans to verify that they met the Illinois State Standards for science in the third grade. We were able to match up each activity with a standard, legitimizing our plans.

We also decided to run our class in stations, which was ideal, since both the teachers and the kids were engaged at all times. Rotating stations let the kids focus on a lesson without it becoming tedious. We started and ended the class as one group, which was a good way to provide a cohesive message.


Film group


The film group\’s goal was to create a movie presentation to represent the overall project of the Social Advocacy II class. We wanted to make the movie accessible to the community because it was shown at the publicity event, which was open to the general public. We call this movie “Convert My Car.”


Our film was loosely based on “Pimp My Ride,” a show on mtv dedicated to fixing up really bad cars and making them look cool. Instead of focusing on changing the appearance of the car like in “Pimp My Ride,” our movie focused on converting it to Straight Vegetable Oil (svo). In addition to adopting the plot and format of “Pimp My Ride,” we incorporated four “commercials:” a futuristic fuel-less dystopia, a news segment, Bill Nye the Science Guy making biodiesel, and Superman’s “Three Ways to Conserve Energy.”


Because this film depended so much on the conversion of the car, we got off to a rocky start. The delay of receiving the conversion kit left us with long hours in class with nothing to do, and some serious cramming right before the media event. Reaching consensus on a storyboard was another obstacle.


Creating a movie as part of the Social Advocacy II project was worthwhile, despite a few bumps in the road. Seeing our film at the publicity event was really gratifying and we were pleased to see the community’s enjoyment of our creation.”


Media event

The media event was held on Sunday, March 22 at Boneyard Pottery in Champaign. The owner, Michael Schwegmann, generously donated his space for the afternoon. Each of the groups in the Social Advocacy class were represented in some way. The documentary group showed the film they made twice during the event. The car group finished converting the car just in time for the event and had it on display out front, where people were able to look at it and ask questions about the conversion.


In addition, there were four sciencefair- style posters on display: one about biodiesel, one about the conversion process, one about societal impacts of fossil fuel, and one about the lesson plans. Students from each group were stationed at the tables to talk to visitors and describe their specific area of expertise. Fliers with additional information were available at each table, and the kids group also gave out biodiesel coloring books.


Turnout for the event was very good, thanks to the fliers and generous media coverage, including local papers and news stations. We packed the place! Our display at Beckman created local interest in our project and it helped us prepare for the media event.


The project was intriguing to the public because it was about the pressing current issue of high gas prices, and because it offered practical solutions and important information about alternative fuel sources. It was a good project because there was something for everyone to do, and because our generation will have to cope with the problem of declining world oil supplies.


We were able to convert a car and make biodiesel and we were successful at informing the public about alternative fuel sources. By doing so, we demonstrated that alternative fuel sources are practical and possible.

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