Biodiesel on Campus

College students are making biodiesel because they want to do something to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and to make the planet a better place to live.
By Ryan C. Christiansen | September 16, 2008
College students around the country are learning how to make biodiesel. While some schools only teach about biodiesel during one lecture, one lab experiment or one course, in other schools biodiesel is central to chemistry or engineering department curriculum and research. However, no matter what level of exposure the students are getting, many are participating in grassroots initiatives to introduce biodiesel production and consumption on campuses and in college communities as a whole.

From undergraduate courses to graduate programs and from research projects to extension services, the inclusion of biodiesel education in chemistry and engineering programs in the nation's universities varies. Some colleges only touch on the subject. Others have full-blown research engines designed to develop the next big breakthrough for biodiesel.

Universities with relatively small chemistry departments don't have a lot of flexibility for customizing their curriculum. Steve Bertman, a professor of chemistry at Western Michigan University, says he gives lectures in engineering and environmental studies classes. The department also has students complete a couple of experiments in the lab. "But in terms of the hard curriculum," he says, "it really hasn't come in."

"We don't have a specific degree or program," says Ihab Farag, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. "We try to go with the traditional lines of education and we supplement the materials to show them how to apply things from the perspective of alternative energy."

While the biodiesel educational component might be small in some schools, the process for making biodiesel in others is seen as a valuable teaching tool.

"It brings in all kinds of components that you can talk about," says Kurt Birdwhistell, a professor of chemistry at Loyola University in New Orleans, where students are introduced to biodiesel in organic chemistry lectures. "It's such a relatively straightforward reaction," he says. "Just about anybody can do it. The students see the immediate application of chemistry. Then I can introduce other ideas about green chemistry beyond biodiesel." In some schools, even next-generation feedstocks provide fuel for basic chemistry lectures and labs. "Teaching about algae and making lipids or using photosynthesis to make fuel is a very teachable moment," says Lisa Colosi, assistant professor of environmental and water resources engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In fact, developing a curriculum around renewable fuels is becoming a priority at some schools. Ernst Cebert, a professor of plant science at Alabama A&M University, says the school is developing one now. "We want it to be a multidisciplinary approach," he says, which would utilize the school's engineering and chemistry departments.

While the University of Kansas doesn't have a specific biodiesel-related track for students who are interested, the university does have its own small-scale biodiesel plant. The plant provides students from multiple disciplines the opportunity to learn about and complete projects related to making biodiesel, according to Susan Stagg-Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the university. However, she says, the school is looking ahead and is working with the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis-a multiuniversity National Science Foundation engineering research center that is headquartered at the university-to develop an NSF-sponsored graduate program that would focus on biodiesel and biofuel production.

Other programs are more developed. The Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program at the University of Georgia was designed almost specifically with biodiesel in mind, according to Daniel Geller, a research engineer for the program in Athens, Ga. "Biodiesel is a very important part of the curriculum," he says. The program has a rich heritage beginning as far back as 1981 when John Goodrum began researching alternative fuels for diesel engines, he adds.

Geller says the university has started working with Athens Technical College in Athens, Ga., to develop a curriculum to train students to run biodiesel plants.

Biodiesel Excites Students
The biodiesel education component at universities is helping to fuel students' passion for renewable energy. Having grown up in an era of uncertainty about climate change and energy supplies, the students who are involved in biodiesel education feel empowered.

"Having a local opportunity to make fuel, for most of them, is an opportunity to do something," Bertman says. "They want to feel like they are involved in being part of the solution."

For some students, working with biodiesel is seen as a patriotic duty. "We have a Marine who just graduated from officer training who is working on biodiesel," Geller says. "He grew up on a farm and I think he really sees this as a service to the farmers and to the country."

Geller says some students are interested in biodiesel because they want to be involved in energy policy while others, like himself, simply want to work in an applied science where they can see the results of their work during their lifetimes. He says half of the students in his department's graduate program are working on biofuels.

Don't forget the students from across the pond, he says. "They wonder why the U.S. can't figure out this problem as fast as Europe," Geller quips.

Community Outreach
Farag and his students also reach out to area farmers and to high schools that are interested in building their own biodiesel plants, he says. His students promote using biodiesel in school buses in New Hampshire, and the university set up a filling station that pumps biodiesel.

This summer, Loyola held a Green Chemistry in Education workshop to educate 12 high school teachers about alternative fuels. The teachers in the workshop made biodiesel so that they can educate their students about the process. KU, meanwhile, hosted five high school students for a week-long engineering camp. The students made a batch of biodiesel and burned it in one of the school's John Deere tractors.

AAMU created the Biodiesel Classroom on Wheels, which is a flatbed trailer that includes all of the components required for making biodiesel. Cebert says the demonstration has been popular with farmers, small industries, diesel fleet operators, schools, and 4-H and FFA programs. "We have lots of requests for the trailer to be brought to an event to provide a hands-on demonstration," he says.

KU hopes to establish a biodiesel testing facility. "We're trying to help drive ASTM standards, and to develop new tests [that are more economical]," Stagg-Williams says. She says establishing a testing facility for even the smallest biodiesel producers is important. "Biodiesel and biofuel in general has a lot of hurdles to get over in terms of public perception," she says. "It doesn't take a lot of bad fuel to turn people off."

With a more mature program in place, researchers at UGA provide technical support for biodiesel facilities in the state. Geller says he gave 74 presentations in the state last year to community groups, farmers, universities, industry investors and bankers. "I pretty much spend a third of my time talking to groups," he says. "The interest has been immense."

Geller says the university also hosts the annual Southeastern Biodiesel Workshop, which brings investors and interested parties into a lab to make biodiesel.

After recent publicity about the algae fuel research program at UVA, Colosi says she's been asked to speak to a lot of media and is getting a lot of phone calls. "We get on average six requests per day to talk about algae biodiesel. We are inundated," she says. "Now we're starting to get requests from alumni who work in various technical outfits who say, 'We think we can grow algae. Can we really make fuel?'"

On Campus and in the Community
More than just teaching about biodiesel and making small batches in the lab, students and faculty at some universities are taking things a step further and making biodiesel to power diesel engines on campus. At Loyola, students are planning to convert waste fats from student cafeterias into biodiesel. At KU, however, biofuels are becoming a part of life on campus. Two years ago, a computer science student came to Stagg-Williams and suggested that the university convert the waste cooking oil from dining halls on campus into biodiesel. Stagg-Williams wrote a proposal, which she presented to the student senate. The students provided her with $15,000 to buy the equipment. Now three paid students and 16 volunteers routinely convert waste oil into biodiesel at a rate of 40 gallons per week. The group is planning a bigger facility that could supply all of the school's buses with B20.

AAMU is looking at engaging the entire community of Normal, Ala., in a waste-cooking-oil recycling program. "We don't want virgin oil to be converted directly into biodiesel," Cebert says. "We would rather see the oil first go to an industry that uses it to process food. Then on the back end, we'll get the waste oil and convert that to biodiesel."
The university also wants to develop small-scale, continuous biodiesel production plants that can be used by small businesses, fleet operators and farmers to produce their own biodiesel, Cebert says.

After Graduation
The nation's universities are just now graduating students who are seeking to work specifically in the biodiesel industry. "Really, this industry has just started to take off," Geller says. "Just now, I sent two students off to California to hopefully work at algae companies. Really, beyond that we haven't graduated any students in this program yet that can go into the industry, because the industry really just started taking off six or seven years ago."

Other students are rolling up their sleeves to make biodiesel commercially on a small scale. After learning to produce biodiesel in school and manufacturing it for their own use, three 2007 Southern Oregon University graduates have formed Rogue Biofuels in Ashland, Ore. The small business plans to generate 100,000 gallons of biodiesel per year from the waste vegetable oil that it gathers from local restaurants.

Ryan C. Christiansen is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or(701) 373-8042.
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