Have you ever attempted to see how far you could “coast” your car without using any fuel? Right after Hurricane Katrina struck and gas prices went out of this world, I was playing with every trick to give my standard the most mileage. The last thing I wanted to do was go near a gas station. Now imagine trying to do that for 8 months. While circling the United States. And the vehicle you start with will not be the same one you return in. Such was the adventure of Shaun Murphy, his dog Sparky, and his brave crew as they traveled America using nothing but alternative fuels. More than 30 vehicles using 12 different “green” energy sources were used — from a Human Powered automobile to a Hummer that runs on doughnuts to a Tzero electric sports car.
This extraordinary feat will be shown as a new series on The Discovery Channel airing tomorrow (Earth Day) called Cool Fuel. It follows Shaun as he travels through 30 states and attempts everything in the book (and some not yet written) to return back to where he started using green energy. I recently talked with Shaun about his trip, the future of alternative energy, and why the Porsche sports car has some stiff new competition.
E: How did the show Cool Fuel come to be?
S: I was making a TV show in Australia at the time — and I’m a horticulturist — I’ve always known that you can make fuel from plants since about 20 years ago. And with renewable energy bubbling along, I thought, “I’m going to try to make it from the middle of the Outback to Sydney Harbor without using any petrol.” So I just cobbled together a bunch of people who were on the fringe of renewable vehicles, we grabbed any alternative fuel vehicle we could find, actually made it to Sydney Harbor and ended up making a television show out of it. People thought it was fantastic. The concept caught the eye of a television friend in the U.S. and me, himself and a Kiwi decided to get together and do this around America. We wanted to make it this huge challenge and turn it into a bunch of television shows — and we came over here and, “Holy Hell!”, this is where the boom was happening! Click the link below to read more…
E: How did you use each vehicle driving across the U.S.?
S: We set ourselves a bunch of different challenges: Let’s try and get from the northern border of California to the southern border of Canada using biodiesel. We literally hunt down anyone who had a diesel vehicle and anyone that had biodiesel fuel and worked it that way. When we got to some of the tougher ones, for instance, we said, “Right. We’re going to use cow manure as a fuel to try and go from Greenbay to Chicago.” From there, we literally borrowed a big electric Harley Davidson motorcycle from a guy in NY — and he drove across to Green Bay where we then charged the bike to Chicago on various locations generating methane from cow manure. It was challenge by challenge by challenge. Whatever region we were in, we asked, “What’s produced in this region and is anyone producing any fuel or electricity from it?”, and then we just went for it.
E: Tell us a little bit about the support crew you had with you?
S: Yea, you know what’s cool? We’ve got a 37-foot long diesel RV — and that thing was our production vehicle, our home, our storage of small vehicles the whole trip. We ran that on B100 the whole way around the U.S. So, in that sense, we were also the first production crew that was 100% renewable.
E: It took 8 months to shoot?
S: Well, we were on the road for 8 months because it turned into an 18-part half-hour TV series. Discovery is going to show about 12 hours worth, I believe.
E: What were some of the reactions of the people you met?
S: The first thing you hear is, “What is that?!”; and then you try and explain and half of them couldn’t understand because of our accents. But we would open up the engines and show them what we were up to and they would be simply amazed.
E: Did you get a chance to drive the Tesla Roadster?
S: I haven’t had a chance to test the Tesla, but I did get behind the Tzero. And that thing flies! In one of the TV shows we race a Porsche and a Tzero. We kicked the Porsche’s ass! I haven’t driven the Tesla yet, but the Tzero is just incredible.
E: Tell me about some of the celebrities that you had the opportunity to encounter or work with?
S: We filmed a story on a biodiesel-powered concert that Jackson Browne and Jack Johnson were playing at. I think that’s on one of the first shows on Earth Day. We met Daryl Hannah in Colorado, had a ride on one of her veggie oil-diesel bikes. We had a really funny segment with Ed Begley Jr. over at his place. He is a champion, an absolutely fantastic bloke. We also has on Alexander Paul. We had a stretch-limo Hummer converted to run on five different cool fuels. Ands she joined us for that ride. An absolutely delight. She is a wonderful woman.
E: Does Daryl Hannah have a green home?
S: Oh yea, she’s got this beautiful ranch. I’m pretty sure it’s a recycled post office. All recycled timbers — just a beautiful property. Sustainable, permaculture, the whole bit.
E:What was your most favorite green vehicle to drive?
S: As far as a car goes, definitely the Hummer. We built a little gasifier into the back of it and we ran it off doughnuts. We literally threw a whole bunch of beignets from Cafe Dumond in New Orleans into a blender with some soybean oil and corn whiskey. We churned that all up and threw it into the gasifier. The gasifier, instead of burning hydrocarbons, burns carbohydrates and we pump that gas through another pipe to the engine where it’s ignited in the combustion engine. Food power like a beauty, mate!
E: That’s amazing. You don’t generally put “green” and “Hummer” in the same sentence.
S: Well, and that’s why we wanted to do it. We took it a step further with that 32-foot stretch-Hummer I mentioned previously. We had a gasifier in it to run on food, a corn-whiskey ethanol booster built in, biodiesel engine, a fuel cell in the front seat and solar panels on the roof. So, the solar panels were producing the electricity to run the fuel cell, the engine was running on biodiesel, we had ethanol to give it an extra boost for the MPG, and food just to give it another vitamin boost as well. It was fantastic.
E: Of all those fuels, which one do you think hold the most potential for the US?
S: Two of them: biodiesel and ethanol. Straight-forward, no problems at all. Slight changes in the manufacture of normal gasoline engines will it enable them to run on E85. 85% Ethanol. Biodiesel, straight into your diesel engine. They are the two that will become big. Hydrogen will happen eventually as well, but that’s still another 15-20 years away. With the infrastructure that we’ve got, biodiesel and ethanol are the best bet. Electricity wise — probably wind. Wind is the fastest growing energy source in the world. Wind will capture more of the electricity market as the years go on.
E: How much did cold affect the performance of your vehicles?
S: You know, we pretty much structured the trip so that we were not stuck in the freezing cold while using biodiesel; at least with my vehicles. The RV was running on B100 for the entire trip and only ran into some issues in Iowa. It was starting to feel it there. But, we injected ethanol straight into the mix to increase the octane value and give it a little more heat. This is something I don’t recommend trying. Thankfully, our mechanic knew what he was doing and it all worked out. But even in the snow of D.C., we didn’t run into any issues. There was a little bit of luck involved. Generally, in the cold, diesel engines prefer B80 or B85 over B100. But we got through just fine and made sure to insulate against the rougher temps.
E: Was Sparky, your pet dog, able to accompany you on every vehicle?
S: Yep! He was in everything. If we were in a motorbike, we was just in my backpack on my back and if it was a larger vehicle, he was just in my lap or next to me. He was pretty much with me the whole way.
E: What about the glider?
S: Oh man, no he wasn’t with me on the glider. That was full-on. I was sick the entire time. It was difficult because we couldn’t find an electricity source and we were most of the way through our trip. We just couldn’t figure out how we were going to get these next 80-100 miles with alternative energy. Anyways, we found these guys that had a glider and biodiesel in his truck They were able to pull the glider with that truck and launch it into the air. It was amazing. A very funny experience.
E: Can we expect more from you with Discovery on their new channel, Planet Earth?
S: I hope so. I’m extremely excited for that channel for sure. Nothing signed yet, nothing secured, and probably not for many months. I’m very confident in linking up with those guys and doing some more cool fuel things.
Check your local listings for Discovery Channel’s Cool Fuel with host Shaun Murphy airing this Sunday, April 22nd! Click here to visit the official site!