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    Off the Grid: Biodiesel Production
    by Sue Angell

Biodiesel Production
The 85-gallon processing tank where vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel.

Biodiesel Production
Merrett pedals his way to a clean-burning fuel.


• Diesel engines were invented in 1900, and were originally designed to run off peanut oil. Diesel became the preferred fuel of choice only after it became cheaper to produce.

• Biodiesel is the name of a clean burning alternative fuel that is produced from domestic, renewable resources.

• Biodiesel is made by means of a chemical process called transesterification, which involves separating glycerin from vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products--methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a byproduct).

• Biodiesel is one of the most thoroughly tested alternative fuels on the market today. It is the first and only alternative fuel to have completed the rigorous health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act.
 Photo: Biodiesel Production
 Mike Ialeggio '07, Nathan Anderson '06, Stephen Merrett '05, Colin Gunn '06, and Mendon Kelrick '05 pay tribute to their winter term project.

(All photos by Danielle Indovino '06)
March 8, 2004 – To the uninitiated, "biodiesel" might sound like a futuristic fuel source. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as four students set out to prove with their winter term project, "Off the Grid: Biodiesel Production."

The students--Stephen Merrett '05, Colin Gunn '06, Nate Anderson '06, and Mike Ialeggio '07--designed and built an 85-gallon processing tank to convert vegetable oil into the clean-burning, alternative fuel known as biodiesel. Although many different types of these fuel processors already exist, this one is set apart by the fact that it runs "off the grid."

"'Off the grid' means that we're not connected to local utilities suppliers," Merrett says. "Because we are making a renewable fuel that can be used in place of fossil fuels, we wanted to design a process that did not rely on the electricity that is generated from burning fossil fuels."

"It would be easier to do this if we used electricity to run the processor," adds Anderson, "but that would negate the point of this project."

To keep their project off the grid, Merrett, Gunn, Anderson, and Ialeggio looked to the Oberlin Bike Co-op for an ingenious solution. Using discarded materials from old bicycles, they constructed a pedal mechanism that is attached--by way of an intricate set of chains and gears--to the blade inside the processing tank. With this innovation in place, members of the group were able to pull up chairs and sit comfortably while mixing the concoction inside the vat into a usable fuel source.

How exactly does vegetable oil convert into something that can power a diesel engine? First, you need vegetable oil--and a lot of it. Merret, Gunn, Anderson, and Ialeggio collected oil from Dascomb's kitchen fryers to produce their initial batches of biodiesel. Their first order of business, however: straining the oil to remove remnants of food.


Instead of dismantling their project at the end of winter term, Merrett, Gunn, Anderson, and Ialeggio plan to install it at the George Jones Memorial Farm. Brad Masi '93, executive director of Oberlin's Eco-Design Innovation Center (EDIC) and manager of the farm, plans to use the processor to make fuel that powers the farm's equipment.

"We like to think of the farm as a site for experimentation," says Masi. "The biodiesel processor is just one of several 'microenterprises,' such as wetland restoration or chicken tractors, that fits into our larger vision of the farm."

According to Masi, the biodiesel processor will help the farm save money and reduce pollution in the surrounding area. All of the farm's equipment runs on diesel; a costly proposition for farmers who find it harder to make a living from the land.

"Many farmers are looking at energy production as a new source of income," Masi says. "Agriculture is not just about food anymore. We're looking for new ways to stimulate agribusiness and make farming a viable occupation again."

While the farm may offer students a place to experiment, Masi notes that it also can provide a home to these projects after a student has graduated.

"Many students have provided us with innovations that we did not have the time to make ourselves," says Masi. "This is just one more example of how students can get involved with the farm and give something back to the Oberlin community."
"Straining the oil isn't a particularly appetizing process," says Merrett, "but using waste oil closes a recycling loop in the community. By taking something that has been used and turning it into something that can be used again, we avoid wasting our resources."

Once the oil is strained, Ialeggio heats it with a Babington burner. Other members of the team, meanwhile, place a mixture of methanol and lye into the processing tank, then mix it for approximately 15 minutes. Once the oil heats to 135 degrees, it's pumped into the processing tank. Students take turns pedaling the processor, which in turn catalyzes the chemical reaction that converts the oil into biodiesel.

" It takes about one hour of steady pedaling to produce this reaction," Gunn says. "But that's more or less an estimate. If you pedal faster, it probably would get done faster."

Once the pedaling is done, the mixture is left to settle. Approximately eight hours later, the transformation is complete and, according to Merrett, "you have a usable batch of biodiesel that can be put into any unmodified diesel engine, including cars, trucks, tractors, or lawnmowers." With all the hype about hybrid cars and lower-emission gasoline, why bother with biodiesel? Simple, says Merrett.

"Biodiesel doesn't release sulfur oxides into the air, and it cuts down on the particulate matter released by diesel engines," he says. "Not to mention the fact that it can decrease our dependence on oil. Think about it--farmers can produce food for local restaurants, then use waste oil from those same restaurants to power their farm machinery. In this loop, the farmer produces the liquid fuels required for operation, increases local air quality, and saves money in the process. Everybody wins!"
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