8:42 a.m., Oct. 25, 2011–Transportation at the University of Delaware became more environmentally friendly recently, when the campus bus fleet began using biodiesel produced by undergraduate engineering students to, in part, fuel its travel.

The project is a collaborative effort between transportation and engineering, inspired by the donation of a biodiesel processor last spring by UD chemical engineering alumnus James Seferis, who received a doctorate in 1977.

Biodiesel is a clean burning alternative fuel, produced from renewable resources such as vegetable oil or soy oil. Biodegradable and less toxic than table salt, it has lower emissions compared to petroleum diesel and it can be used in compression-ignition (diesel) engines with little or no modification.

The homegrown biodiesel is made by recycling used cooking oil. Housed in Colburn Laboratory, the donated biodiesel processor is capable of recycling 130-150 gallons of cooking oil per batch to produce 100 gallons of biodiesel fuel, as well as glycerin, a syrupy byproduct with many uses in agriculture, pharmaceuticals and beauty products.

Undergraduates in the Department of Chemical Engineering provide the sweat equity to render the oil into fuel through a method called transesterification, the process of separating the glycerin from the fat or vegetable oil. The project is part of the senior design experience led by Antony Beris, Arthur Metzner Professor of Chemical Engineering.

The student team calls their product UDiesel and they currently produce approximately one batch per week, which equals approximately 42 gallons of biodiesel and 11 gallons of glycerol.

“Right now, we can produce biodiesel from recycled cooking oil with minimal loss or cost,” said UD senior Matthew Wehrman. “Each gallon of biodiesel used means one less gallon of diesel fuel burned, which means fewer gallons of imported oil.”

“Since the waste oil and soy oil comes from local biorenewable sources, it also reduces UD’s carbon footprint; a win:win for both the University and the state,” added Norman J. Wagner, Alvin B. and Julia O. Stiles Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Wagner serves as the senior design team’s mentor, along with Ruth Sands, a member of the Heat, Mass and Momentum Transfer Group at DuPont Engineering Technology. A true believer in the product, Wagner began using biodiesel from the pilot scale facility in his diesel Jeep Liberty and reported the vehicle “purrs like a kitten.”

Seeding entrepreneurship 

Seferis, who donated the equipment, said he hopes his donation will “catalyze a spirit of entrepreneurship, teaching and leadership” that will inspire UD chemical engineering students to create new innovations. A self-professed “venture catalyst” – someone who influences a reaction without actually taking part in it – he said the effort may also eventually seed start-up companies focused on sustainability issues.

“What is really interesting about UD is the integrative thinking and systemic approach to energy,” said Seferis. “The beauty of this project is the opportunity to recycle not just oil, but also ideas that may now gain a foothold because of new technology, giving hope to the next generation.”

Article by Karen B. Roberts

BiomedicalFueling a sustainable future