December 1, 2014
Sustainability taking shape, one french fry at a time
The sound of a diesel engine is distinct. Sure, some are louder than others, and diesel enthusiasts can usually recognize the differences in sound between Cummins and Powerstroke engines, for example, when driving down the road.
One Cummins engine in particular, housed in a maroon Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty truck on the Kansas State University campus, operates using a renewable fuel called biodiesel. Students, faculty, staff and visitors might meet the truck occasionally as it makes the rounds to pick up used cooking oil from residence hall dining facilities and the K-State Student Union.
The unique truck, which down the sides reads, "Powered by Biodiesel," serves as the flagship for a major sustainability project at K-State, the Biodiesel Initiative. The waste oil goes to a conversion lab at the K-State Recycling Center, where students turn it into biodiesel for use in other K-State diesel trucks and landscaping equipment.
"We have a number of diesel trucks on campus that consume our biodiesel, and other smaller engines can use it as well," said Ron Madl, K-State research professor emeritus of grain science and a leader of the Biodiesel Initiative.
According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel can be made from a diverse mix of feedstocks that include recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and animal fats. Because recycled cooking oil is the input at K-State, people who eat fried foods on occasion in one of the campus dining facilities contribute in a small way to the university's sustainability.
Madl wanted to get students more involved in research centered on sustainability when he served as co-director for K-State's Center for Sustainable Energy. The K-State 2025 visionary plan also emphasizes sustainability planning as a way to help K-State become a Top 50 public research university.
"All universities need to teach our young people how we can have a smaller footprint going forward," Madl said. "Getting them involved in recycling—how we do it chemically and how we do it economically—is important."
About two years ago, Madl established a biodiesel conversion lab from scratch with funding help from the Kansas Soybean Commission, the industry organization that also provided the Dodge truck for waste oil pick-up and salary support for student workers to run the lab.
The students represent many different majors, including grain science, biological and agricultural engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry and biochemistry. Together, they formed the Biodiesel Club that is currently supervised by Dan Higgins, professor of chemistry at K-State. Club members get hands-on experience in the conversion lab and learn about the process of making biodiesel.
"These students get great experience in understanding how processes operate with responsibility and maintaining safety," Madl said. "Students can leverage this experience in their future careers and are setting an example about sustainability across campus."
Rachel DeMyers, a junior chemical engineering major at K-State, is the current project manager for the lab but has been involved in the Biodiesel Initiative since the beginning.
"I like the hands-on experience and learning how to problem solve," DeMyers said. "I was able to get an internship going into my junior year, which isn't common, because I had confidence in my ability and leadership experience with this project."
Joshua Benton, also a junior chemical engineering major, is the process lead in the lab. He enjoys working with students who have different backgrounds and skill sets.
"Everyone brings something different to the table," Benton said. "One of our members is an English major, so she's always on top of writing proposals and forming the charter for our group."
DeMyers and Benton said students must go through a semester of safety training before working in the lab, and at least two students must be present when making biodiesel at all times.
Processing and using biodiesel
Once the students collect the waste oil at different locations on campus, they bring it to the conversion lab and test the quality of the oil, Madl said. The oil must have the right chemistry — a certain level of moisture and a low free fatty acid content — for a good reaction. The students then filter out the solid particles, such as leftover French fries.
When the oil meets those requirements, it goes into a reactor and is converted to 100 percent biodiesel, or B100. Then it's blended with petroleum diesel to get B20, or 20 percent biodiesel, which is used to fuel many of the campus vehicles.
"I estimate that we will produce between 1,500 and 2,500 gallons of B100 per year," Madl said. "We convert at least 50 gallons of waste oil per week in eight months of the year, as we shut down for the summer and during winter holidays."
The lab wasn't completely quiet the last two summers, however, as K-State professor of chemical engineering Keith Hohn has supported the initiative by providing National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates students to work on research projects in the conversion lab.
Another K-State faculty member, Ed Brokesh, recently became involved in the Biodiesel Initiative as well. As an instructor in biological and agricultural engineering, he uses biodiesel produced on campus to show students how it operates in their tractors compared to petroleum diesel. The students run engine performance tests to make the comparison.
"The students often hear and read about biodiesel but never actually get to see it in use," Brokesh said. "Basically, there's not much of a difference in the fuels. They both operate and perform the same way. One just happens to be out of petroleum, and one is out of soybean or other organic materials to create biodiesel."
Brokesh said producing the fuel is one thing, but it is important to study the fuels and how they interact with different engines. Through research knowledge, he and his students can educate consumers — farmers in particular — about using biodiesel.
In addition to the Kansas Soybean Commission, other sources of financial support include the K-State Provost's Academic Excellence Fund and a NSF grant awarded to K-State's industrial and manufacturing systems engineering department that relates to cooperative research on sustainability, Madl said. Because the university does not have to purchase as much diesel fuel, it credits the conversion lab for the amount saved in fuel costs to help support the lab's needs.
To watch a video about the K-State Biodiesel Initiative, log on to the K-State Research and Extension YouTube page.
Sidebar: The sustainable campus: Looking to the future
One of the latest equipment purchases for the biodiesel conversion lab at Kansas State University could help the university become even more sustainable in the future, said Ron Madl, K-State research professor emeritus of grain science and a leader of the Biodiesel Initiative.
"An issue that you have with biodiesel is about 20 percent of the production volume generated from our reactor is a waste product that has to be disposed of," he said. "It is mostly glycerol, but there is methanol unused from the reaction itself. As a result, we've purchased a piece of equipment that will give us the ability to purify glycerol and separate it from the methanol. The methanol is then put back into the reactor for the next time we run a reaction, so we're recycling the menthol and getting more use of that chemical."
The purified glycerol, then, has another value, he said. K-State students are currently researching how to convert the glycerol into an industrial degreaser that K-State Facilities could possibly use internally.