Students Convert Waste Vegetable Oil to Biodiesel
Vegetable oil isn’t just for cooking at Alma College.
Chemistry Assistant Professor Sean Mo and a team of students are working with campus food services, the organization Students United for Nature, and the physical plant to convert waste vegetable oil to biodiesel made up of fatty acid methyl ester.
Students in Mo’s laboratory courses inspired the project. They enjoyed the hands-on conversion experiments so much that SUN asked Mo if there was a large-scale application for the process. Steve Watkins, general manager of Sodexo, Alma’s food service vendor, offered Sodexo’s waste vegetable oil to the project.
Sean Mo (center)
Since then, Mo has been conducting workshops with students to get them acquainted with the conversion process and with the safety precautions. It is important to him that the students are in the lab working on the project and gaining ownership of the process.
“I want students to be involved, so down the line, it will be a student-run enterprise,” says Mo, who has been working on the project since last spring. “A lot of students are interested in getting their hands wet, so to speak, which makes me really want to carry out this project. I’ve gotten a lot of great support from them.”
Within the next month or two, he hopes they can figure out how to get the purest final product from the process. The fuel has to be pure enough to safely run in conventional diesel engines.
To combat Michigan’s winter temperatures, biodiesel must be blended with additives and petroleum diesel. It can then be used year round. Otherwise, the product is at risk of gelling up under such harsh weather.
The step-by-step conversion process leads to pure biodiesel.
Mo’s goal is to produce pure biodiesel by the end of the semester. By the end of the academic year, he hopes they will be able to produce 30 to 50 gallon batches every two weeks. From there, the project only becomes more inspired.
“Next fall, we want to see how the entire campus can figure out a business plan that can benefit everyone involved in the project. We also would like to partner up with businesses and non-profit organizations in the community,” says Mo.
But the students remain the heart of the project. For Mo, the best part of the experience has been making science fun for students.
“I think science should be very approachable. It should be something we should all be able to relate to, especially in this day and age, so, hopefully, a project like this will encourage people to see science in a different light,” says Mo.
Posted: Mon, November 9th, 2009 at 10:03AM