How college kids built the world's fastest veggie oil-powered vehicleS

Last week, a group of Boise State University students set a new land-speed record for a vehicle powered by vegetable oil: 155.331mph. How'd they get a diesel-swapped, 1998 Chevy S-10 to unleash such fury from mere vegetables? Read on.

The team, made up of undergraduates from Boise State's College of Engineering, set the veggie-fuel speed record last week at El Mirage Dry Lake, Calif, at a meet hosted by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA).

Team leader, Boise student Dave Schenker says his inspiration to play with diesel engines sprang from Rudolph Diesel's original idea — to run farm equipment on fuel farmers could grow themselves. Up until that point, Schenker says, he was basically an "end user" of vehicles.

Fast forward a few years and he was wrenching on a diesel truck project and messing around with vegetable-based fuels, sorting through a mountain of disinformation about their limitations for providing power. But once he hooked up with some locals who were part of the Bonneville speed set, the two concepts — veggie fuel and speed — converged.

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Years later, as a student at Boise State, Schenker would assemble had the means to match the motive. "Someone had gone 98 mph with a hugely budgeted, purpose built truck," he wrote us in an e-mail. "Seemed like a pretty easy target. I started talking about it with whoever would listen, finding people who shared the desire."

Two years of "red tape" later, he says, Schenker was the president of Greenspeed, a student club, mainly comprised of engineering students, devoted to the cause. As a project, they'd build a vegetable-oil-powered vehicle to break the speed record.

The six-student team focused on the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) "Diesel Truck" class, which required body panels to remain stock and no aerodynamics gear allowed. Keeping costs down was a priority, as was keeping the vehicle recognizable. "The reaction we can only hope for is one along the lines of: 'Oh gee, Fred down the street has one of those. This one runs on what?? Huh, and it goes fast. And students made it...I wonder if there is something to this stuff?'"

Schenker had already had experience playing around with diesel. "I quickly got caught up in the world of diesel tuning, building a set of compound turbos for my old pickup, porting the head, massive modifications to the fueling system, etc."

How college kids built the world's fastest veggie oil-powered vehicleS

The truck was stripped to the frame, and over the course of two-and-a-half feverish months, the team rebuilt it, installing a compound-turbocharged 5.9-liter Cummins straight-six diesel producing 700 hp.

For fuel, the team used a mix of cottonseed and sunflower oil. "All the research shows that canola has the highest energy, though," Schenker says. "Maybe next year."

More than 70 sponsors donated upward of $110,000 in parts and cash. After a rookie run at Bonneville Speed Week, where the S-10 reached 137 mph on the salt, the team was granted a Class C license. Then, last week, the team made two runs — a record-shattering 139 mph, and the eventual record.

Also next year? Beating the diesel record, which stands at 215 miles per hour.

(Photos: Holly Salewski.)