Monday, April 20, 2009

Engineers Assist with Fuel Crisis

Beth Papanek

It’s not news to anyone that the fuel situation in this country as well as the world is a growing problem. It’s not even news that there are groups on campus and research facilities that are worried and attempting to do something about it; however, one group that is taking a particularly strong stand in the alternative energy aspect of life on campus is Engineering Without Borders (EWB). This organization is in charge of numerous projects around the globe that deal with reducing energy use and helping developing nations. They also have a domestic project.

The Biofuel Initiative is an attempt to reduce fuel needs on campus specifically. Hundreds of gallons of vegetable oil are used in campus dining halls on a daily basis. Whether it’s French fries, chicken tenders, or the corn dogs, a good portion of the foods served in the dorms is fried. All of that food is breaded and put in hot vegetable oil to cook. Normally, that vegetable oil is then thrown out with the rest of the waste from the dining halls. EWB is using the Biodiesel Initiative to find a more productive use for this vegetable oil. The oil is collected, mixed with Methanol and turned into a usable biofuel.

This biofuel, after the reaction is blended with normal petroleum based fuels in the same manner ethanol is blended. The blend is currently being used for the Facilities and Services vehicles on campus. This benefits both the environment and the University. The cost to the Facilities and Services department compared to normal fuel is approximately $1.75 less. The cost to EWB includes labor, raw materials, waste disposal, and transportation. This totals $2,500 per month. Even with these costs, the fuel is being sold at a price lower than normal petroleum.

The reason it is currently only being used for campus vehicles is that normal car warranties don’t cover high percentage blends of fuel. The campus vehicles are allowed to use it with ASTM approval, which the group has managed to acquire for relatively little money. Ideally, the group is producing 400 gallons of biofuel per week for the Facilities and Services department.

The Initiative has goals for expansion and continuing this project into the future. They currently have what they refer to as an “Appleseed Reactor.” This miniaturized reaction mechanism does the same mixing of ethanol and the vegetable oil as the machine that is used for the large-scale production, but the Appleseed Reactor is portable. This makes it possible for the group to do outreach and teach the community about their project in a very visual manner. The mini pump system also makes it possible for interested citizens to see how it would be possible to produce biodiesel at home.

They are hoping with increased awareness and communication, they will be able to expand their production. Right now only campus dining halls are allowing the collection of vegetable oil. EWB hopes that private housing facilities as well as local restaurants will soon see the benefits of biofuel and allow their vegetable oil to be reprocessed as well.

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