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ESF Biodiesel Production Program Raises Awareness



Research Summary

SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) is leading the way in the development of sustainable fuel alternatives, using waste cooking oil from Syracuse University’s (SU) cafeterias to power campus vehicles. The Biodiesel Production Program at ESF began in the spring of 2006 and is now a full-scale operation. In an effort to become carbon-neutral, this innovative program has developed the capability of creating fifty usable gallons of alternative fuel every week for use in the College’s transport vehicles. Inspiration for this program came from a student who had made biodiesel with his mother while in high school. He proposed biodiesel production to President Murphy, and the President agreed to fund the demonstration project.

Current Research Focus

The process of making biodiesel from waste oil takes approximately two full days and requires a special reactor, which is housed at ESF’s own biodiesel processing plant. For every 50 gallons of used vegetable oil, an additional 10 gallons of methanol is required, in addition to sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. Once added to the reactor, the ingredients cook overnight. The result is a mixture of biodiesel and glycerol. After an overnight wash, the homemade fuel is ready for use in the college’s buses and trucks. The glycerol byproduct is used for soaps and renewable plastics, leaving nothing to waste.

Michael Kelleher, Co-Director of SUNY Center for Sustainable and Renewable Energy, is hopeful that there is a valid use and large-scale need for biodiesel fuel. The gasoline market remains the largest source of fuel for personal transportation in the United States, but diesel fuel is still in high demand for commercial transportation markets, including the freight industry, which uses large trucks. Mr. Kelleher notes that the demonstration focuses on that market by offering biodiesel as a substitute for the petroleum-based diesel that comes from suppliers overseas.

Advancements

Engineering students from ESF and SU are working together to develop a new, larger reactor that creates new supplies of biodiesel and provides greater opportunities for teaching and research. The new design, which will offer a faster and more efficient system capable of offering a steady supply of fuel, is being completed with the help of the Enitiative program and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Foundation awarded SU a $3 million, 5-year grant for activities devoted to community improvement.

Drs. Christopher T. Nomura and Jim Nakas are leading a project sponsored by NYSERDA with another group of ESF students to transform the glycerol byproduct of the biodiesel process into renewable bioplastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). PHAs can be produced by many bacteria as a carbon storage material and, in this sense, are similar to fat in humans. Due to the chemical composition of PHAs, they are easily consumed by naturally occurring microbes in the environment. The team is already engaged in talks with medical device companies that have expressed interest in using the raw polymer in plastic covers for thermometers and ear exams. Currently, these covers are made from the petroleum-based plastic polypropylene, which is non-biodegradable. As these are used for high-volume, single-use applications, the medical industry is extremely interested in a ‘green alternative’. Covers made from PHA biodegradable plastics are expected to take just 8 weeks to decompose in compost or sewage sludge.

The Biodiesel Production Program is also taking steps to increase awareness, throughout Central New York, of the benefits of developing sustainable fuel alternatives. Each year at the NY State Fair, a massive 900-pound butter sculpture is displayed as a tribute to the State’s dairy farmers; and for the past 2 years, after the display has run its course, ESF students have used the sculpture to fuel their biodiesel program. In collaboration with the American Dairy Association, the Dairy Council, Inc., and the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, the near-half-ton butter mass is broken down and used to power vehicles on the ESF campus. A butter sculpture of this size can be turned into over 90 gallons of biodiesel fuel.

Partners and Contributors

The Biodiesel Production Program is a collaborative partnership with SU’s Environmental Entrepreneurship plan. The Enitiative plan offers collaborative partnerships to provide funding and resources to innovate companies and education initiatives across Central New York. Of the more than 100 projects that supported by Enitiative, 9 are devoted to green technology.

The Biodiesel team includes Michael Kelleher, Director of Renewable Energy Systems at ESF; Steve Lloyd, Chief Sustainability Officer at SU; Craig Watters, Whitman School professor in entrepreneurship; and Christopher T. Nomura and Neal Abrams, Chemistry professors at ESF. The Program was initiated by ESF College President Neil Murphy.

Contact Info

biodiesel@esf.edu