Vegetable-Oil-Powered Motorcycle Interview

Energy & Sustainability
Vegetable-Oil-Powered Motorcycle Interview

John Petsche with his Vegetable Oil-Powered Motorcycle

“Come see what happens when we imagine the world differently!” If you’ve seen any of the ads for Maker Faire New York, taking place this weekend, September 17 and 18, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, you’ve seen this invitation. Makers have a gift for imagining the world differently, and one maker who clearly fits this bill is John Petsche. John converted a junked motorcycle to run on pure veggie oil, and went on to set the land speed record for a bike in this class.

1. Tell us about the vegetable-oil-powered motorcycle you’re bringing to Maker Faire. What inspired you to convert it and how long did it take?
The motorcycle is a Kawasaki KZ400 that I redesigned with a diesel engine from an electrical generator. It can get well over 100 mpg and reached a top speed of 56mph in full racing setup. I am interested in alternate energy and mechanics and this seemed like a great way to combine the two. A motorcycle is the ideal vehicle for me because it is cheap, fits easily in my garage, and is simple to modify. The entire process, including retrofitting the original design to make it legal for land speed racing, took about 18 months to complete.

2. You set the land speed record for this type of motorcycle. What was that experience like?
The variety of people and the unique machinery that was being raced there was incredible. I first became interested in the sport by reading about people like Burt Munro and John Britten, who built record-setting motorcycles from scratch in their garages. While I was there I also got to see Bill Warner break into the 300 mph club on his Hayabusa. Even though I wasn’t nearly as fast, my 56 mph top speed felt like as much of an accomplishment because of its potential to help the environment.

3. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I heard about the Maker Faire through one of my friends from the RPI Formula Hybrid Team. I looked through pictures and read accounts from previous years and immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of it. The variety and originality of the projects are incredible. I decided to participate so that my ideas could get more exposure and inspire other people to work with alternate fuels.

John Petsche Speed Record Trials

4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I’ve always been a gear head. Growing up, I was inspired by inventors like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to persevere with my ideas, no matter how many times it might fail. I’ve been interested in alternate fuel technology for several years, and in college I was a member of a Formula Hybrid Team that built a biodiesel-electric hybrid race car. After graduation, I wanted to continue tinkering with that technology. One of my hobbies is restoring vintage motorcycles, so it made sense to base my first project on a junked Kawasaki that my friend had traded to me for some spare parts.

5. Is your project strictly a hobby or part of a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
Both. For now it’s just a hobby, and I’d like to build an improved version capable of completing a road trip to Alaska powered by just vegetable oil. A few prototypes down the line though, I would like to start a business designing and building high fuel-efficiency motorcycles that cater to both commuters and enthusiasts alike. As fuel costs increase, the high energy efficiency and variety of usable fuels will increase the appeal of this type of design.

6. What new idea has inspired you most recently?
The recent surge in popularity of biomass as a fuel source is very exciting. Renewable resources, such as wood and algae pellets, may make its use economical in certain niche markets. These fuels burn very cleanly and can be produced domestically.

John Petsche Veggie Oil-Powered Motorcycle

7. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
Do what you are passionate about. Everyone who attends an engineering school will receive the same basic education and take most of the same classes. Often, it is the projects that you pursue in your spare time that will set you apart from your peers and give you the edge you need to get your ideal job.

8. What’s your motto? Favorite tool?
I don’t have a specific motto so much as a self doctrine. Push the limits. Work on something that matters. Think outside the box. And just make it happen. My favorite tools are my pair of Bahco adjustable wrenches. I found them in a garbage can in Denmark, and I use them for every project I work on. I would rather spend the extra money on a set of well made tools then have to constantly replace cheap ones.

9. What do you love most about NYC?
I love the epic scale of the infrastructure in New York City. Everything, from the bridges and buildings to the subways, is built on a grander scale than anywhere else in the world. It is the epicenter of the “bigger and better” attitude.

Photo credits: First and third photos by Daniel Falkenstrom; second photo by Charis Kotfila.

Thanks for the inspiration, John! For folks who want to come out to the Faire this weekend, meet John and hundreds of other inspiring makers, check out the Maker Faire website for all the information you need.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

View more articles by Goli Mohammadi


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