Great Inventions Of 2009: The Vegawatt

Restaurants usually pay about $100 a month to dispose of used oil from deep-fryers, but mechanical engineer James Peret of Massachusetts invented a way to turn that oil into energy savings. A small generator called the Vegawatt sits outside the restaurant, filtering out the old bits of food and pumping the clean oil into a system that can cut about $1,000 from a restaurant's utility bill. Guy Raz talks to Peret as part of our series on some of the great inventions of 2009.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Restaurants pay about $100 a month to have someone come haul away their used oil along with the crispy bits left over from all the French fries, beer-battered shrimp and chicken wings that were fried in it.

James Peret, a mechanical engineer, thought that was both wasteful and expensive. So he came up with the Vegawatt. It's a small generator that sits out back, behind the restaurant's kitchen door, and it turns that grease into energy, energy to power the restaurant.

Now, all this month, we've been looking at some of the clever inventions of 2009, and James Peret joins me to talk about his.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES PERET (Founder, Owl Power Company): Thank you.

RAZ: So how does it work? How does your machine work?

Mr. PERET: Well, our machine filters out all of the food crumbs, the beer-battered shrimp and onion rings and the gunk that you mentioned earlier. It heats it up to a point where the engine, which is a standard diesel engine or an industrial diesel engine, can utilize the oil.

Diesel engine turns a generator head, which produces electricity, which then is fed back into the restaurant. The diesel engine also produces a lot of heat, and the restaurant can use that to produce hot water or for space heating. There's an added benefit there.

So we've harnessed that for the restaurant. Our overall efficiency is actually around 70 percent.

RAZ: So presumably, that could save them a lot of money in energy bills.

Mr. PERET: Oh, exactly. We can save them, you know, 10,000, $20,000 a year.

RAZ: Now, how many restaurants are using the Vegawatt so far?

Mr. PERET: Right now, we have three locations in place. We have orders for an additional three.

RAZ: And these are restaurants that do mostly fried foods?

Mr. PERET: These are all types of restaurants. You know, oil is a very expensive resource for a restaurant. They want to get as much life out of it as possible. And now we have a device that we can sell to restaurants, where restaurants are very motivated to put all of their oil into the device because they own it, and they get the benefit of it.

RAZ: Now, I've heard about people using used vegetable oil to run their cars. Is this basically the same principle?

Mr. PERET: It's a quantum leap from that principle. Biodiesel is a chemical conversion of vegetable oil into a transesterified product. We don't undergo a chemical conversion. Instead of altering the chemistry of the fuel, we alter the engine so that it inherently can burn the raw fuel.

RAZ: So, now, I guess one of the added benefits that you would get from the machine is that you would always have this wonderful smell of French fries wafting from the back of the restaurant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERET: You do have that wonderful smell of French fries, but unfortunately, standing next to the system, usually, they're located in dumpster corrals. So it smells like dumpster.

RAZ: Like dumpster and French fries and tempura shrimp?

Mr. PERET: It really depends on the menu options of the restaurant of what the dumpster smells like.

RAZ: I think you should market this to funnel-cake makers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's James Peret. He is the inventor of the Vegawatt. It's a generator that turns the used oil from a restaurant's deep fryer and sends it right back into the restaurant as electricity. He joined us from his home in Massachusetts.

James Peret, thank you so much.

Mr. PERET: Thank you, Guy.

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