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Nick Kunihiro does not aspire to a career working under the hood of a car.

But Kunihiro is studying the nuts and bolts of automobile engines in a popular class at Santa Rosa Junior College, where a new generation of mechanics and do-it-yourself environmentalists are learning to build their own alternative fuel vehicles.

"I was really surprised that this class existed," said Kunihiro, who is learning how to convert his Volkswagen Beetle to run on ethanol.

The alternative fuels class, created two years ago, drew widespread interest this fall after gasoline prices hit record highs and more motorists began turning to hybrid cars or pumping biodiesel.

Forty students signed up for the two classes and 40 more were turned away this semester, said Mark Armstrong, a Petaluma diesel truck mechanic who developed and teaches the classes. The college will expand the program next year to meet demand from students.

Some students are preparing for careers as mechanics and enrolled in the class to complete the college's two-year diesel technology program.

Others are environmentalists who are concerned about global warming and share Armstrong's passion for renewable fuels.

"This has pretty much been my lifelong dream," Armstrong said. "You can sit around and complain. But that isn't going to get you an electric car or a veggie car. So let's make an option. There is an aspect of tinkering and inventing that I've always gravitated toward."

Three months ago, Kunihiro knew little about cars. Now, he is more comfortable using wrenches and other basic tools on cars in the diesel shop on campus.

"It's one of those things where you definitely learn as you go along," he said.

Lately, Kunihiro has been learning soldering and brazing to piece together an ethanol converter from dozens of copper pieces. When finished, the unit should make about 3 gallons an hour of ethanol from vegetable and fruit scraps, grass and other organic waste.

Then Kunihiro can get to work on converting his Volkswagen Beetle to run on ethanol, which he estimates will cost 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon.

"The one thing that's always exciting about this is gas prices will always go up and down, but making my own fuel, it will always be the same price," he said. "That's my goal, to be self-sufficient and at the same time make a fuel that's much cleaner than gasoline."

Other students currently are converting a Mercedes 300 Turbo Diesel to run on vegetable oil and a gasoline-powered Volkswagen Cabriolet to run on electricity.

On the Mercedes, two parts are critical. One is a filter to separate out water and heat the vegetable oil. The other is a heat exchanger to make the oil hot enough to fire through the fuel injectors.

The Volkswagen requires more extensive work to make room for 15 batteries, including reconfiguring the suspension. The steering, as well as mounts and shafts near the engine, also must be modified.

During this week's shop session, student Nick Devine worked on replacing the car's power steering with a manual mechanism. That will reduce electrical load and lighten the car some. But Devine first had to cut a metal piece into an oddly shaped mount.

"That's how I've done it my whole life, by the seat of my pants," said Devine, who wants to become a mechanic when he completes the diesel technology program.

To help standardize the conversions, Armstrong photographs and documents the work. This should reduce time involved, such as cutting the Cabriolet project from a full semester, 17 weeks, to about 5 weeks.

Even students not mechanically inclined should be able to catch on sooner, he said.

"As long as people are safe and know what they're doing, then it flies," Armstrong said.

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