Slick oil: Veg-oil bus headed to Alask

Duck behind any diner in America and you'll likely find a vat containing hundreds of gallons of grease that restaurants have to pay specialized haulers to cart away. But a trio of locals plans to use the slimy troves to move themselves.

"They get rid of a waste product, and we get free fuel," says Scott Wilcox, shortly after pumping 30 gallons from behind Duner's. It's just another pit-stop on the way to Alaska on a school bus purchased at a North Carolina surplus sale.

If this sounds like a college-sponsored mission to protest Arctic drilling, think again. The organizers are delighted to highlight the importance of alternative fuels, but what they're really after is a cheap ride to the 49th state.

Can their bus really cross the continent powered solely by leftover ooze from deep-fry vats? Almost.

Like bio-diesel, a much-touted fuel that can be pumped into any diesel vehicle, cleaner-burning vegetable oil requires no engine modification. But it's so sludgy that a diesel warm-up is needed to make it viscous enough to reach the engine.

"We have a filtration system right on the bus," says Wilcox, "so we can suck oil, filter it, and head on down the road."

It was Wilcox's friend Luke Scruby, a UVA undergraduate, who engineered the on-board filtration system using conventional plumbing and water-filter parts. Total tab: $400. Scruby's sister, Virginia Tech graduate Emily Scruby, is the third member of the traveling trio.

"We're hoping the conversion will pay for itself by the time we hit the Mississippi," says Wilcox, a 2002 Western Albemarle graduate, now a student at Auburn.

"We're hoping we get across America," says Wilcox, "on one tank of diesel fuel."

If they stay on target, the cost of their planned 14,000-mile trip (they want see lots of sights) might have a total fuel cost of just $600– compared to an estimated all-diesel bill that could top $5,000.

While the trip wasn't designed as a rallying point, the vehicle makes plenty of eco-points. Perhaps that's why several local companies have donated supplies. And a few days before departure, word came that UVA– which just announced its own major bio-diesel initiative– had suddenly come up with an $800 grant.

That should help with pit stops at greasy spoons along the way– not at the drive-thru window, but at the big greasy tank out back.

Luke and Emily Scruby and Scott Wilcox