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Takin’ It To the Streets
By Kerry Brophy
Alternative energy guru Thomas Hand collects veggie oil for the NOLS Bus.
© Brad Christensen

Thomas Hand — college student, outdoor enthusiast, mechanical whiz kid — is a chronic tinkerer. The son of a car dealership owner, Hand knows his way around an engine. He also knows that we’re living during a time of higher and higher fuel prices and gas guzzling SUV’s. That’s why the 21- year-old’s tinkering has led him probing into diesel engines to figure out how to get them to run on used vegetable oil.

Hand’s first experience with this by-product of French fries was two years ago during a workshop on converting tractors to run on veggie oil. Part way into the workshop, Hand understood more about the conversion process than his teachers. So he taught the whole class and then converted the tractor himself. “I definitely grew up tinkering with things,” Hand says to explain this particular achievement.

Project Bio Bus
Project Bio Bus poses for a photo during their 2004 NOLS HQ visit.
© Brad Christensen

The Middlebury College student knew he was onto something after his workshop. Along with some friends, including NOLS grads Lindsey Corbin (Owyhee Backpacking and River in 2001) and Logan Duran (Semester in the Pacific Northwest in 2001), Hand decided to try a new twist on the summer road trip in 2003. He converted an old school bus to run on veggie oil and then the team of students set off for the summer in search of some good rock climbing. By way of coincidence and a little planning, Hand had also signed up for a NOLS North Cascades Mountaineering course that summer. Now he had a ride.

On its way across the country, Project Bio Bus - the hand-painted school bus filled the air with the distinct smell of fast food. Along with veggie fumes, the bus also generated more attention than the group expected. The team had one day with 20,000 hits on its website, a full-page article in USA Today, live interviews on CNN, even an article in the Moscow Times.

The summer ended happily. Hand arrived at his NOLS course prepared and psyched, and the students’ bus found a new home in California with the bluegrass band “Hot Buttered Rum.”

Britton Keeshan
Hank Hunker (left) and Thomas Hand install a custom veggie-only fuel tank into the NOLS Bus.
© Brad Christensen

This summer, Hand returned to his engine tinkering, this time with the 34-foot NOLS On the Road: Finding Tomorrow’s Leaders Bus. Hand was on the scene in Lander, Wyoming to convert the NOLS bus, which is now touring the country promoting NOLS and leadership. “I loved it,” Hand says of the conversion. “The bus was a challenge. I had never worked on a bus like that. The hardest thing was trying to make a system that’s relatively easy to use, and trying to tell other people how to use it.”

Hand liked Wyoming. And he especially enjoyed being part of what he considers a big step for NOLS.

“NOLS is a very big advocate of backcountry LNT,” Hand explains. “But I think with the way our environmental problems are going, a lot of what we’re facing is more global. With what NOLS does we’re controlling regional pollution, but there’s not as much value in that on a global scale. But [with the bus project] NOLS is taking a step toward reducing global pollution. It’s the next big step, and it’s a lot harder to make.”

Hand doesn’t think most Americans realize how veggie oil can reduce smog and CO2 in the atmosphere, and he hopes his conversions have done something to change that. “If people are aware that there are alternatives out there, they’re more likely to use them.”

For most Americans, the words “veggie oil” stir up images of French fries and stir fry, but the idea of putting this product into diesel engines is slowly spreading. In the last three years, there’s been over 100% increase in the use of veggie oil for fuel, mostly in the form of a product called biodiesel, which is chemically altered veggie oil that can operate an engine non-stop (versus straight veggie oil that kicks in after an engine has been started with diesel). According to the National Biodiesel Board, 500,000 gallons of biodiesel was sold in the U.S. in 1999; in 2003 that sales figure rose to an estimated 25 million gallons of the alternative fuel.

Hand still has over a year left at Middlebury College, but this fall he’s returned to the road, joining a group of Middlebury students on another Project Bio Bus trip touring schools to teach about alternative fuels. As a natural leader, Hand says his NOLS “Expedition Behavior” skills come in handy during the long days on the road. Along with NOLS grad Charles Acker (Waddington Range Mountaineering in 2004), Hand runs group meetings each day, just like they did at NOLS. “Everyone has to get along really well,” he says of the new tour. “We’re 12 people working on a big bus, which isn’t that big with 12 people on it.”

The college student says he’ll go back to school in the spring. His natural engineering abilities have already won him job offers at large corporations, but for now Hand has a very big message he wants people across the country to hear.

“Unless we as a planet work a little bit harder on global climate change,” Hand muses, “I’m not sure there will be many NOLS mountaineering courses in 50 years. Unless we make a front country effort, there’s not going to be a lot of the backcountry stuff we enjoy. It won’t be there.”

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