UI students convert vegetable oil into biodiesel

By Kristen Sackley

University student engineers, chemists and other concerned students have been hard at work this past year developing a project that is about to impact the Champaign-Urbana campus in a very big way.

The UIUC Biodiesel Initiative is a project that the campus Engineering Without Borders chapter has been working on since midspring of 2006. Ben Barnes, senior in Engineering, was the University project founder after seeing a similar project done at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The initiative takes waste vegetable oil and by reacting it with several chemicals, turns it into biodiesel fuel for University automobiles. Not only is this process environmentally friendly, but it will reduce costs for the University by quite a bit, said Mandy Poole, junior in Engineering and co-project leader.

The cost of diesel gasoline costs the University around $2.40 a gallon, and this project would be able to have the biodiesel produced at under $1.50 a gallon, saving the University about a dollar a gallon, Poole said.

Joe Teng, senior in ACES and co-project leader, said that the project plans to take waste vegetable oil from the University dining halls, which is normally just given away to a company called National Byproducts Inc., which uses the oil to make animal feed. The project hopes to produce up to 400 gallons of biodiesel per week.

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    This process starts with gathering the waste vegetable oil and then heating it to 140 degrees in order to get all the impurities and water evaporated out. Then when put into a reactor tank, the waste vegetable oil is mixed with methanol and sodium hydroxide and rinsed again. Finally glycerin, the byproduct, is separated and all that is left is biodiesel Teng said.

    The biodiesel will be added to the University’s 8000-gallon tank, so that the fuel that they use is actually a blend of biodiesel and diesel.

    “Our minimum is a 5 percent blend, then 10 percent and finally 20 percent by end of the semester,” Teng said. “The reason we are only doing 5 percent is because some of the newer vehicles say you cant use more than 5 percent blend. By the end of this year we hope to have a handful of vehicles running 100 percent of biodiesel.”

    The project has about 50 active members who will split up shifts and students will donate about 15 hours a week, once the project is up and running, Poole said.

    “We are hoping we can make it as automatic as possible. We will alternate between east and west dorms,” Poole said. “The reaction takes about 8 hours of supervision and we only need to pick up waste once a week.”

    Poole said funding for the project came from multiple grants that the project had applied for, competitions they entered and part of the $4 Cleaner Energy Technologies Fee that University students pay.

    The project has secured $20,000 total in funding and plans to start constructing the reactor in late March or early April, Teng said.

    Facilities and Services and the Waste Management and Research Center are helping the students out with the project and have even donated a campus garage for the students to build the reactor in and house their project.

    As for the long term, the project hopes to eventually develop a manual to circulate to other campuses and even around the world to teach others how to create biodiesel from waste products, Teng said.

    “Once we develop a strong foundation on our campus, we want to help other communities and campuses. You can make it from palm oil, soybean oil and it doesn’t require a whole lot of technical experience, you just need to train people,” Teng said.

    Poole said they want to inform people about the benefits of biodiesel and encourage the use of it.

    “It is possible, it is feasible, it is cost-efficient and energy efficient,” she said.

    Teng said that the only downside to biodiesel is that is has a high freezing point, which makes it difficult to use in the winter. Other than that, it’s biodegradable and even non-toxic.

    “It is better for the car because it’s a natural lubricant and has lower emissions than regular diesel,” Teng said.

    Both Teng and Poole said one of the best things about the project is that it was started by students and is being implemented by students.

    “It’s completely student run; students are doing the design, everything. We are getting some help from the University, and we are always looking for students to help out,” Teng said.