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Teen's canola-oil car yields 'celebrity,' honors

July 18, 2000

Toledo Blade photo
Nick Oberlin, 17, has been giving speeches to groups and continues to test his alternative fuel.
(Toledo Blade photo)
STRYKER - Nick Oberlin's adventures in science continue to move along, just like his car that keeps running on vegetable oil.

Young Oberlin, 17, has been thrust into the spotlight by his high school science project. The project: making automobile motor fuel from used cooking oil.

The cost to make the fuel is 32 cents a gallon, which sounds very good compared to today's gasoline prices.

He proved the concept could be reality by producing fuel from old canola oil to run his own car.

After winning top honors in several local, regional, and state science fairs, young Oberlin qualified for the Olympics of all science competitions, the International Science and Engineering Fair, held this year in Detroit.

He did not win one of the top prizes there, but the high school sophomore's work attracted the attention of interested scholars and visitors.

He has been invited to display his project and speak at the University of Istanbul, Turkey. And he has been in contact with officials of General Motors Corp. and Volks|wagen.

Young Oberlin and his cooking-oil car have been mentioned on radio news show and have been featured in newspaper and magazine articles.

''Celebrity? Well, a little bit,'' he said. ''I walk down the street and people have said, 'Hey, you the kid with the car that runs on salad oil?'''

He has given speeches in northwest Ohio, most recently to the Bryan Kiwanis Club.

''He should be a celebrity,'' said Steve Rinell, a Kiwanian. ''Nick deserves a lot of credit for engineering something like that.

"You hear a lot of bad things that kids do, or that they aren't doing, and here's kid doing something truly useful,'' Mr. Rinell said.

The student's talk to the Kiwanians led to a restaurant owner offering to give him used canola oil, which the eatery owner now pays to have hauled away.

Young Oberlin is doing more environmental testing of his fuel, for emissions, toxicity, and decomposition rate.

''In California, they have a law that by 2003, cars must be clean burning,'' he said. ''I'll try to get my fuel to meet those standards. Actually, I think it does already.''

His fuel, concocted at his family's rural home, is made from old canola oil he gets from a hardware store and local restaurants.

He hopes to get financial assistance from Volkswagen, maker of his 17-year-old Jetta that rolls along on canola-based fuel.

That could help him develop the process even further and promote awareness of alternative fuel, young Oberlin said.

''Fossil fuel will run out some day,'' he said. ''There has to be a Plan B.''

His success and recognition might make university studies more possible, with a scholarship. In college, young Oberlin plans to major in limnology, the study of freshwater lakes and streams.

''I grew up in the country and always liked water,'' he said. ''I go out now and observe plants and bugs around water, and I've had projects involving bio-filters and small ecosystems involving water.

''A major goal of mine is to clean contaminated water systems by letting nature heal itself," young Oberlin said. "There are places where certain water plants clean up wastewater.''

For the summer, he has a job like other teenagers, working in the Airmate Co., factory in Bryan.

He is helping his parents restore a 100-year-old house they moved from Bryan to their lot near Stryker.

''That's a family project,'' he said. ''We're all working on it.''

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