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Biodiesel made from used vegetable oil may soon power campus vehicles

March 27, 2008

Biodiesel made from campus food waste may soon be the fuel of choice for UW-River Falls’ diesel fuel-powered vehicles.

Students from UWRF’s agricultural engineering department have been working on converting oils from campus food waste into a useable fuel source. They are doing this with the aid of a biodiesel processor.

“This [obtaining the processor] was made possible by a grant from the UWRF foundation,” the department chair of agricultural engineering technology, Dean Olson said.

The agricultural engineering students were highly involved in obtaining the biodiesel processor.

“[The students] helped co-author the proposal that we submitted to the foundation and they [the foundation] decided that we should receive the grant to pursue this project,” Olson said.

The University Center and the agricultural engineering department are working together to make this project work.

“Right now our main goal is to just get raw used vegetable cooking oil from the [University] Center—they have a collection tank there and we’re working on ways to pull that fluid out,” UWRF senior agricultural engineering student, Sam Marx said. “We’ve got a couple different pump ideas with filters on them. The next big step is to transport it over to the shop here [in the agricultural science building].”

The biodiesel produced by UWRF agricultural engineering is not quite ready to be used in University owned equipment, according to Olson, but once it is ready, biodiesel could be useful in a variety of ways.

“The biodiesel processor improves engine life because it increases lubrication,” UWRF junior agricultural engineering student, Jerome Krawczewski, said.

People concerned about emissions from petroleum-based fuels may lean toward the biological alternative.

“Biodiesel is better for the environment,” UWRF junior agricultural engineering student, Cole Hernke, said.

UWRF is not the only place experimenting with biodiesel. On Nov. 30 San Francisco completed a year long project to convert its array of city vehicles to biodiesel, according to a New York Times article by Carolyn Marshall. Biodiesel burns cleaner and studies have shown that it reduces carbon dioxide emissions, according to the article.

Biodiesel may have its advantages, but it has some disadvantages as well.

“A disadvantage to biodiesel itself is that there is not as much energy content as fossil fuels, so it has reduced efficiency and you’re going to get less miles per gallon,” Marx said. “Another disadvantage is that under 40 degrees it starts to gel up if it’s not blended [with petroleum-based fuel.]”

Cars using biodiesel have been affected by its lack of efficiency in cold weather. Cardiologist Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein drives a diesel powered Volkswagen Jetta that he chose to gas up with biodiesel. His gas line subsequently froze up in cold New York temperatures and caused the engine to stall, according to a Feb. 18, 2007, New York Times article by Juli S. Charkes. The biodiesel that he was using to fuel his car consisted largely of animal fat, and when the fuel is exposed to cold temperatures, it congeals.

Currently, UWRF is not at an economically profitable stage with biodiesel.

“Right now we’re just starting and it’s a learning experience, so it’s not real cost effective for us,”  a UWRF senior agricultural engineering student, Derek Husmoen, said. 

Once the biodiesel produced by UWRF becomes more refined it could prove to be economical. If all goes according to plan, UWRF plans to use the fuel in the campus lawnmowers and the farm equipment on the lab farms, according to Olson.

Research on biodiesel has paid dividends in the form of learning experiences for UWRF students.

“It’s good to have projects like this,” a UWRF senior agricultural engineering student, Ben Heintz, said. “I’ve been here for four years and I’ve never done anything like this.”