University of Kansas produces, tests biodiesel

By Ryan C. Christiansen | June 17, 2008
Web exclusive posted July 15, 2008 at 11:42 a.m. CST

Researchers at the University of Kansas in Lawrence are preparing to begin road-testing biodiesel produced as part of the school's Feedstock to Tailpipe initiative. According to Susan Stagg-Williams, associate professor in the chemical and petroleum engineering department at the University of Kansas, the initiative includes converting recycled waste cooking oil and methanol from the campus into B20, which will be used to power all of the university's vehicles.

The program has acquired several engines for testing, Stagg-Williams said, including John Deere tractors, a Yanmar generator, a Volkswagen Beetle, and an aircraft engine that was purchased using a grant from NASA. The second phase of the test will be to power the university's buses.

The biodiesel is produced in a lab operated by the school's chemical and petroleum engineering department. Weekly the lab collects approximately 40 gallons of waste oil from one campus dining hall and has also been using a 275-gallon supply of surplus methanol which it has used to produce over 700 gallons of biodiesel to date using the demonstration plant. Up until now, the lab has been storing the majority of the biodiesel and studying fuel property changes to gain a better understand of the impact of storing biodiesel relative to engine performance. The lab plans to produce at least 6,000 gallons of B100 per year, which will be blended to make B20 to power school vehicles, including the university's newly acquired fleet of buses.

The school is able to produce the biodiesel for less than $1 per gallon, Stagg-Williams said. "The methanol and used oil are free for us," she said, "so the only cost we have at this time in materials is the potassium hydroxide that we use in the process." The university also saves money by not having to pay for disposing the waste oil. But not all costs have been accounted for, she said, including the cost for electricity to run the reactor and other utility costs for the facility. The reactor system originally cost $5,000. "We also do not account for the fact that the labor would cost something and, in our case, it is free," she said. "We are hoping to attract some business students to our volunteer base in the fall to do more detailed calculations about the cost, including all of the factors."

Stagg-Williams oversees the project and the lab is primarily operated by chemical and petroleum engineering students, but students from several departments across campus are involved in the biodiesel production. Mechanical engineering students are testing the fuel and environmental engineering students are monitoring emissions. Students are looking at ways to save on water and electricity consumption and are examining the effects of the lab's waste water on vegetation. "We hope to develop a methodology that can be used with the production and implementation of any alternative fuel," she said.

Stagg-Williams said the project is funded by the university's Transportation Research Institute, the Kansas Soybean Commission, and the university's student senate, which provided startup funds to purchase the reactors and initial supplies.

"We have a long way to go with the project," she said, "but we are thrilled with the accomplishments in the past year. "
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