AAAS Diary: Biodiesel Punchbuggy

Reporter Graeme Stemp-Morlock blogs from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

Okay, get your punching fist ready.  YELLOW BIODIESEL UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO PUNCH BUGGY!

Continuing the marketing offensive in a clown car was the University of Idaho’s biodiesel project, which managed to move a VW Beetle into the exhibition hall (I still don’t know how they got it up the escalator).

But, the bug was just a component of the whole promotion effort, which also featured free bags of popcorn, magnets, canola seed packages, and lots of green and yellow colored students hawking pamphlets.

The biodiesel effort is partly Jack Brown’s fault, a researcher at the university.  He’s studied how to make biodiesel the most attractive alternative fuel possibility.

“Did you know that in 1908 when Ralph Diesel took his revolutionary engine to the Paris world fair it ran on peanut oil?” said Brown.  “So, we’re not doing something new, we’re actually going back to where it began.”

Of course, Diesel may have had no idea the problems that fossil fuels would have caused for the world and the desperate need for his engine to run on plant matter.

Brown described the way that canola oil can be genetically engineered to produce a better oil than soya plant based oils because they don’t solidify at cold temperatures and have a lower cost of production.  Currently the team from Idaho runs 100% canola oil biodiesel (or technically rapeseed methyl ester) in several trucks, buses, cars, and heavy-duty farm equipment.

“Rapeseed biodiesel makes a lot of sense for environmentally sensitive areas,” said Brown, such as Yosemite National Park or farms, two areas where Idaho research vehicles operate with high regularity and reliability.

And, what about that yellow beetle?  “We bought the beetle for publicity, and everybody loves it,” said Brown.  “We’ve had ever politician in the west, the president of the university, celebrities all drive it.  They just love it.”

-Graeme Stemp-Morlock


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There's a lot of uncertainty about alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. The Family Science Day crowd of all ages enjoyed the BioBug and had scientists and students there to answer their questions.
The University of Idaho has information on the web at

Interesting piece... but I guess you meant Rudolph Diesel - not Ralph.
Does the beetle run on biodiesel? If so which engine does it use?
Regards, from Bergen, Norway... where we run on biodiesel made from recycled frying oil - ALL WINTER!

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