Forgive the students at Sinclair Community College if they get the munchies when they pass the tractors that cut grass, blow leaves, or sweep snow on campus: Oil that once cooked French fries and onion rings is being used to power the vehicles.
Students have begun making biodiesel fuel by converting used cooking oil from the dining hall. Biodiesel saves the school a little money on gasoline, gives the students lessons in engineering and chemistry, and removes oil from the waste stream.
"It ends up as a product that is more friendly to the environment. And we’re teaching with it," said Woody Woodruff, director of facilities at the 65-acre campus.
Sinclair is among a growing number of colleges nationwide making their own biodiesel, an alternative fuel produced from renewable oilseed crops, such as canola or soybean, or from used vegetable oil and other fats. The concept is being driven by greater environmental awareness among students.
The State University of New York melted down a 900-pound butter sculpture from the state fair last summer to help power its vehicles. Biodiesel accounts for about 8 percent of the fuel used on campus.
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., produces 50 to 150 gallons of biodiesel each week to power campus lawn mowers, a garbage truck, and farm equipment. The school has more than doubled its capacity of biodiesel, growing from 20-gallon to 54-gallon batches, while biodiesel byproducts are being used in a composting research project at the school’s organic farm and to make soap sold in the campus bookstore.
At the University of Kansas, biodiesel fuels lawn mowers, backhoes, front-end loaders, and other construction equipment. It is also used as a solvent to clean parts and tools and to heat a motor-pool building.
When the school began making biodiesel in September 2007, two people were involved. Now, there are 25.
Neil Steiner, an architectural engineering student, volunteered to work on the project last year and is now a paid lab employee.
"I’m really into green buildings, and it was the greenest thing I could get my hands on," said Steiner, 22, of Tulsa, Okla.
Most colleges make biodiesel by chemically converting used cooking oil from campus dining halls. The oil is transformed through a process called transesterification, which removes glycerine and adds methanol, leaving a thinner product that can power a diesel engine. Biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel.
When a question was posted in November on the online discussion board of the National Association of College & University Food Services asking what dining halls were doing with their fryer oil waste, the board was quickly flooded with responses. Schools said they were either using the oil to make biodiesel or selling it to companies for that purpose.
Estimated U.S. sales of biodiesel have jumped from 75 million gallons in 2005 to 700 million gallons last year.
Sinclair students turn out two batches of biodiesel a week. As of December, they had produced about 100 gallons. With the price of diesel fuel hovering around $2.50 a gallon and the cost of making biodiesel $1 a gallon, the students saved the school a modest $150.
"It’s a gesture," said Bob Gilbert, head of Sinclair’s center for energy education. "Our first goal is education."
Sam Spofforth, executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio, a statewide group that promotes the use of renewable fuels, said the interest in biofuels among college students should create a pipeline of talent and energy for commercial biodiesel production.
"They realize this is the wave of the future," Spofforth said. "There is going to be a tremendous need for educated people to move into these industries."
Steiner estimates he spends 20 hours a week on the University of Kansas biodiesel project, which he works on between classes. He hopes to use his experience after he graduates, perhaps as a consultant helping biodiesel companies obtain materials and funding.
"We make it, we test it, and we distribute it to different places on campus," Steiner said. "We really get our hands on all of it. It really puts you in a practical situation."