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From french fries to fuel: UCSD students explore alternative fuel

A team of UCSD students are turning vegetable oil from the university’s fast-food restaurants into usable biodiesel fuel to power any diesel engine car.

No, really.

Currently, 17 UCSD students, many chemical engineers, are working to design and construct a working biodiesel reactor, at a cost of about $2,500, which will take campus waste vegetable oil supplied by the university’s cafeterias and convert it into useable fuel to power diesel auto engines.

James Ma, one of the students participating in making biodiesel fuel, talked about the scale and significance of the project. “It’s a student-run organization of mainly undergraduate students,” said Ma, “who want to take vegetable oil or animal fat and convert it into diesel fuel that can run in a standard diesel engine. Right now we’re trying to build a reactor to produce the biofuel, refine it into something useable.”

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Biofuel is defined as any fuel with an 80 percent minimum content by volume of materials derived from living organisms harvested within the 10 years preceding its manufacture. Biofuel is derived from biomass, recently living organisms or their metabolic byproducts, such as manure from cows. It is a renewable energy source unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal and nuclear fuels. One advantage of biofuel over most other fuel types is that it is biodegradable, and so relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.

Like coal and petroleum, biomass is a form of stored solar energy. The energy of the sun is “captured” through the process of photosynthesis in growing plants. Agricultural products specifically grown for use as biofuels include corn and soybeans, primarily in the United States; flaxseed and rapeseed, primarily in Europe; sugar cane in Brazil; and palm oil in Southeast Asia.

Biodegradable outputs from industry, agriculture, forestry and households can be used. Examples include straw, timber, manure, rice husks, sewage, biodegradable waste and food leftovers.

Steven Buckley, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who is also the associate director of the university’s Center for Energy Research, said biofuels may be one viable alternative to wean our society from burning fossil fuels with all their related side effects and environmental degradation. “The United States has an enormous appetite for liquid fuels,” said Buckley, “and almost all that liquid fuel is used for transportation.”

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In the future, speculated Buckley, as the easily found oil in the world gradually runs out, biofuels could account for perhaps as much as 5 to 10 percent of the United State’s energy needs. “It’s a multi-faceted solution,” he said. “There are a number of ways you can make liquid fuel, such as from waste vegetable oil, used once and then recycled into something valuable.”

Buckley pointed out a number of vegetable oils, including that from soybeans and palm oil, can be used to produce biodiesel fuel. “The processing steps for every source are slightly different,” he added. “What we will need to do is figure out how to manage a multiplicity of liquid fuel sources in the future. Getting students involved in this is a great way to start that learning curve.”

Ma said he and other students working on the biodiesel project have an agreement with campus housing and dining services to pick up cafeteria waste oil from fryers and grease traps which will be refined into fuel.

One of the many benefits of biodiesel fuel, said Ma, is that it can be readily blended into traditional diesel fuel. “Diesel fuel is more fuel efficient than the standard combustion engine,” Ma said. “You can get more miles per gallon.”

The next task for students is to raise the funds for the $2,500 cost of their project. UCSD student government is supporting their efforts. La Jolla Sunrise Rotary Club is also backing the waste-oil-to-fuel effort. A professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has also made a personal contribution to the project.

The aim of UCSD students is to have their prototype biodiesel reactor up and running by Earth Week, April 16-20. The bioreactor will be a 55-gallon drum with pumps, hoses and the like attached. “It’s small enough so we can transport it for display,” said Ma. “It should be under 4-feet tall and 3-feet wide in diameter. One of our long-term goals is to create a biodiesel cooperative to help support the cost of running the machine for people to use to make fuel.”

Ma, a UCSD undergraduate student, said solutions have to be planned today to find alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels and to solve the energy needs of the future. “The renewable energy transition may take a few decades,” he said.

One contemplated school project, said Ma, is to convert the unversity’s student shuttle service providing transportation between UCSD campus and Hillcrest Medical Center, making it 100 percent dependent on use of biodiesel fuel.

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Associate Professor Buckley said alternative fuel use is definitely high on UCSD student’s priority lists. “There’s a tremendous amount of student energy behind almost every alternative energy project on this campus,” Buckley said. “We get sold-out lectures, more students than we can handle in laboratories wanting to work on environmentally sustainable energy sources. It’s a great way for students to spend their energy.”