College-age scholars on a cross-country trek to publicize environmental challenges and Native American issues stopped at the University of Kansas on July 10 to meet researchers who are turning waste vegetable oil into transportation fuel.
The Udall Legacy Bus Tour was created to honor longtime Arizona congressman and 1976 presidential candidate Morris K. Udall, who was well-known for advocacy of environmental and Native American concerns.
The 13 Udall Legacy Bus Tour participants witnessed a demonstration of biodiesel production by Susan M. Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and Ilya Tabakh of the KU Transportation Research Institute.
The KU team has assembled technology to transform everyday cooking oils into biodiesel fuel that should soon power KU buses on the Lawrence campus. The program, called the KU Biodiesel Initiative, goes beyond what most other universities have developed, since it approaches research and production of biodiesel “from feedstock to tailpipe.”
"This is really neat,” said Jennifer Vazquez, one of the bus riders. “We’ve toured other biodiesel facilities and this is the most institutionalized. They provide opportunities to students, but also they’ve got the whole state and region in mind. It’s cool — it seems really thorough.”
The KU Biodiesel Initiative integrates research with refinement of biodiesel in the university’s two new reactors, which can produce 40 gallons of biodiesel every five days and operate continuously.
"We have to look at alternatives for petroleum-based fuel and even ethanol,” said Williams, who is heading the KU Biodiesel Initiative. “We’re looking at everything from growing the plant that makes the oil all the way though the production of the fuel, to using it in an engine, to testing the emissions and impact on the environment.”
The KU Biodiesel Initiative also will provide testing services to small-scale biodiesel producers in Kansas and the surrounding region at costs far below those currently available. By lowering the steep expense of quality control for regional biofuel producers, KU hopes to increase area biodiesel production capacity.
Ranchers and soybean farmers also could benefit from a regional biodiesel boom, since soybean oil and tallow are potential feedstock for the biofuel. But the benefits of biodiesel go beyond a potential boon to the Kansas economy.
"Biodiesel is a renewable resource, it’s a domestically produced resource, and overall it’s better for the environment,” said Williams.
Indeed, as they crisscross the nation, the Udall Foundation group rides a bus burning a mix of biodiesel and ultra low sulfur diesel that radically lowers particulate and nitrogen oxide tailpipe emission — a contributor to greenhouse gas, smog and acid rain.
"We’ve seen a number of biofuel initiatives and KU’s is the most sophisticated in terms of shifting experimental phases into manufacture,” said Eli Zigas, a bus rider.
The seven-week road trip has already brought the Udall scholars to 15 destinations since the tour kicked off June 12 in Washington, D.C. The journey ends Aug. 4 in Tucson, Ariz. The Morris K. Udall Foundation was created by Congress to “increase the awareness of the importance of, and promote the benefit and enjoyment of, the nation’s natural resources.”
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch , University Relations, (785) 864-8855.