With a climate crisis at hand and our country’s strong dependence on foreign oil, we are at a turning point. Many potential solutions have been raised and debated, some more realistic than others. One of the more feasible methods for decreasing the use of standard oil products is the process of taking conventional diesel engines and running them using biodiesel. As it happens, a coalition of UR students and faculty from all over the University has been working for a number of years to do just that.
For those who have not heard about this alternative energy source, it is achieved by converting used vegetable oil known as waste vegetable oil into a fuel on which slightly modified diesel engines can run. This process, called transesterification, involves using lye and methanol to mix with the oil to form methoxide, which makes the compound less likely to congeal.
An ambitious project to harness this energy has been underway for some time at UR. A few years ago, Pat Braun ’08 came up with the idea for a project to modify one of UR’s buses so that it could run on this waste. A team of students, including junior Eric Weissmann, seniors Dave Borrelli and Dan Fink and Chris Babcock ’07, took the idea and spent fall 2006 and spring 2007 preparing a proposal for the May 2006 Charles and Janet Forbes Entrepreneurial Competition, where it won second place. The competition, which is funded through an endowment to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, encourages current undergraduate engineering students to consider the commercial potential of topics or processes they are studying.
‘UR Biodiesel was unique because it had the potential of becoming a reality on campus,” Weissmann said.
The stated goal of the UR Biodiesel project is to modify a campus bus to run only on biodiesel. This would exhibit a sustainable carbon life cycle assessment, from plant, to oil, to fuel, (to gas, to plant hence, sustainability). Although biodiesel is not a huge step up from petroleum products in terms of exhaust pollutants, it does substantially decrease sulfur and nitrous oxides emissions, which are major components in acid rain. Also, the emission of carbon monoxide and particulate matter are reduced. If successful, the project’s designers hope to possibly expand to use waste vegetable oil from local area businesses in the future.
The UR Biodiesel team has worked with numerous additional UR administrators, including representatives from Dining Services, Transportation, Facilities, University Fire Marshall and Hazardous Waste Management, to make the proposal a reality. Specifically, Associate Vice President for Facilities and Services Richard Pifer and Director of River Campus Facilities Jeff Foster were instrumental in the steps to build the conversion facilities on campus. According to Weissmann, Trades Supervisor and Area Manager Eris Oleksyn has also helped tremendously in aiding with the day-to-day setup of the conversion facilities.
Senior Distinguished Lecturer in the Engineering School Professor Ben Ebenhack agreed early on to be the faculty adviser of the project. Ebenhack teaches a course called Chemical Engineering 278: Energy Alternative Labs, in which students work on renewable energy projects. Students in the class can choose to work on the UR Biodiesel program as their primary project, and so far three students have chosen this option.
Weissmann explained that the students in the class have been working on the technical aspects of the project, while Weissmann and his team have been involved with organization.
‘I think it’s an exciting opportunity for students to work on a sustainable energy project and evaluate process optimization,” Ebenhack said.
According to Fink, the science behind the conversion process is not complicated.
‘The process of modifying a diesel engine system to run on biodiesel is a fairly easy process,” Fink said, noting that the first diesel engine ran on only peanut oil. Beside the need to create the compound, the only other major step is changing the fuel lines to synthetic lines.
The group in Ebenhack’s class plans to order a kit from Utah Biodiesel Supply that will allow them to convert a 100-gallon water heater, which was previously used in an academic building on campus, into a fully functioning biodiesel processor.
‘[The kit] includes all the pipes, tubing and connections in order to make our own biodiesel processor, along with instructions on how to hook it up,” junior Hannah Baker, one of the students in the group, said.
Although this project is not the ultimate solution to the energy crisis, the UR community has taken the initiative to put in motion a number of small steps toward enhancing our University’s sustainability policies.
Campus Executive Chef Mary Locke and Director of Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations Cam Schauf, have been working on initiatives of their own within Dining that promote sustainability, and as such were eager to help with the project.
‘One of the goals of Dining Services’ Sustainability Policy is to develop and further environmental literacy and education on campus,” Schauf said. ‘With these strategies in mind, this project is a perfect fit for us and we look forward to full implementation.”
With their production facility, located off of Wilson Boulevard, nearing completion, the excitement is building about the first run of the biodiesel-powered bus, which is being provided with the help of Director of Parking and Transportation Glen Sicard. Fink said that as of now, the plan is to hold the inaugural run of the UR biodiesel bus rather appropriately on Earth Day, April 22, 2009.
Russell is a member of the class of 2009.