It’s the alchemy of alternative energy: Researchers and student volunteers at the University of Kansas are transforming waste grease into valuable transportation fuel.
Once a week, used canola oil from “Mrs. E’s,” a popular dining commons on the Lawrence campus, is pumped into a 55-gallon drum and delivered to the KU Biodiesel Initiative’s new refining lab in Burt Hall.
There, the discarded oil is refined, washed and tested, metamorphosing though this process into pure biodiesel capable of powering any conventional diesel engine. The lab’s two reactors can refine as much as 40 gallons of environmentally friendly biodiesel every four days.
Today, the project’s impact is limited to the Lawrence campus. KU’s biodiesel runs test equipment — like a Volkswagen Jetta, a John Deere tractor and a diesel aircraft engine — allowing investigators to perfect refinement techniques and measure fuel performance and emissions.
But in the world of tomorrow, with world oil prices spiking, the KU Biodiesel Initiative could help to launch a homegrown industry, one that cuts dependence on fossil fuel and makes transportation greener while revving the regional economy. Indeed, the biodiesel industry is taking off: According to the National Biodiesel Board, 250 million gallons of biodiesel were sold in the U.S. in 2006, compared with 500,000 gallons in 1999.
“We have to look at alternatives for petroleum-based fuel, and even to ethanol,” said Susan M. Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. “So we’re looking at everything from growing the plant that makes the oil all the way through to the production of the biodiesel, to using it in an engine, to testing the emissions and impact on the environment.”
With this “feedstock to tailpipe” approach, KU’s research and production of clean-burning biodiesel goes beyond the efforts of most other universities. “A lot of places are looking at snapshots,” Williams said. “They may look at some of the processing or some of the emissions or some of the feedstocks, but very few places are doing this as an integrated approach.”
While Williams and Ilya Tabakh of the KU Transportation Research Institute direct the KU Biodiesel Initiative, students have been the true engine propelling the program forward.
KU students funded the new biodiesel reactors though Student Senate. Moreover, 113 student volunteers from KU’s Alternative Energy Society are active in the biodiesel project, doing everything from collecting and delivering the cooking oil from Mrs. E’s to cleaning out filters to monitoring the reactions that bring biodiesel into being.
“KU has a history and a culture of student activism,” said Williams. ”The students really like to get involved, and when the students get behind something there’s a good chance it can happen.”
Environmentally minded students appreciate that biodiesel produces less carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons and particulate matter compared to conventional diesel. Also, tailpipe emissions of sulfur oxides and sulfates that make acid rain are all but eliminated.
Students are not alone in their zeal for biodiesel. Area farmers and ranchers have cause to cheer the project. Both soybeans and beef tallow are usable as raw materials for biodiesel. Thus, a biodiesel boom could generate new, growing markets for Midwestern agriculture.
Other makers of biodiesel in Kansas are applauding as well. Because the KU Biodiesel Initiative hopes to serve as the state’s testing lab for biodiesel quality, these small-batch biodiesel producers may soon be able to cut costs — KU plans to test biodiesel for a fraction of current quality control costs, which now run about $1,000 per test.
“It really is cost-prohibitive for anybody who’s a small-scale producer to test on their own to make sure that they’re making high-quality fuel,” said Williams. “So for us to be able to provide that as really an outreach for the state, is something that we see as very important being that we are a state institution."
In the meantime, the biodiesel initiative continues to bring change to KU’s Lawrence campus. KU’s biodiesel manufacturers expect that Facilities Operation’s tractors and other diesel equipment soon will convert to a B5 blend that uses KU-made biodiesel. After that, hopes are high that KU’s fleet of campus buses will start burning biodiesel produced on campus.
Until then, the researchers and students of the KU Biodiesel Initiative will continue testing and perfecting their methods – not to change lead into gold, as the alchemists of old, but instead as engineers and chemists who someday could change the world.
Story by Brendan Lynch, University Relations