Beaufort High School senior Hunter Dean learned to love the environment as a child, when he would search for frogs and snakes near the pond in his backyard.
As he grew older, Dean remembers being upset by photos of trees chopped down in rainforests and polar bears dying because of pollution. So he began using energy-efficient light bulbs and conserving water.
And when he learned to drive, the Cat Island teen took a bigger step toward preserving the environment: He rigged his Ford pickup's diesel engine to run on vegetable oil.
"I was environmentally friendly before it was cool," Dean said.
Two years later, Dean still isn't paying for fuel, and his efforts earned him a spot in a national contest for young entrepreneurs.
Dean, now 18, designed and built a system that makes it easier to filter the used cooking oil he gets free from local restaurants. He's seeking a patent for his system, and he also started a company, Beaufort Biofuels, to sell his filtered oil to others who want to use it to power their cars.
Dean's only regular customer is a family friend who pays $1 a gallon to fill his tank, but he has a business plan and hopes to expand.
The business plan made him a winner of the statewide YEScarolina "Young Entrepreneurs of the Year" competition this fall. The organization, which trains teachers to teach entrepreneurship, is South Carolina's partner in the national Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.
Dean's state-level win qualified him to travel to New York City this month to compete in NFTE's National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, where he presented his plan, which was judged by five CEOs of U.S. businesses.
Dean didn't win the contest -- which would have meant a $10,000 prize and a meeting with President Barack Obama -- but he made the top 12 and was allowed to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 6.
Dean said his truck, a 2000 Ford F-250, runs about the same on vegetable oil as it would on diesel and averages 16 to 18 miles per gallon. It might smell a little funny if you're standing behind the truck -- a little bit like french fries, he said.
As he tries to build his company, Dean said it's a challenge to convince customers their cars could run on vegetable oil.
"It's a leap of faith," he said.
The idea isn't new, Dean said. Rudolf Diesel, the man who designed his namesake engine around the turn of the 20th century, first planned to use peanut oil as fuel. In recent years, as gas prices have shot up, more people have bought into the idea, and companies sell kits online that drivers can install in their cars fairly easily, Dean said.
Roger Roberg, Dean's entrepreneurship teacher at Beaufort High, said he looks forward to hearing from his student in 10 or 20 years because he believes Dean has the mind to find lasting solutions to the nation's problems.
"He's very creative, and he thinks outside the box," Roberg said. "If he did this at 15 or 16, what's he going to be able to do in his mid-20s or 30s?"
Dean is beginning to apply for college and hopes to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. Eventually, he wants to start a company, perhaps one that manufactures and designs products, and work with alternative energy.
"I like trying to figure out the way things work, taking things apart and putting them back together," he said.