Biodiesel U

Why college-level biodiesel programs are sprouting up across the U.S.
By Bryan Sims | November 17, 2010
A thriving industry usually equates to growing educational opportunities in various university systems. However, the inverse of this traditional train of thought appears to be occurring with biodiesel, as a spate of universities have created biodiesel-specific curriculums. It's this disconnect that has gotten people wondering, with all the trouble in the industry, why now? "Universities are kind of a community and we communicate with one another," says Nancy Tuchman, Loyola University-Chicago vice provost. "When a program or initiatives like these are launched at one university, the students talk to each other and kind of push for it to happen at their school. I think this might be part of why it's not unique at just one or two schools."

Initially tested and built as part of a course, LUC's Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy's Biodiesel Program evolved into the first school program in the U.S. to be licensed by state and federal authorities to produce and sell biodiesel. The program is expected to produce approximately 2,500 gallons of biodiesel during the school year, from August 2010 through May 2011, from waste cooking oil collected at campus cafeterias and a local restaurant in the area. Students of the program sold B100 to its first customer, The Free Enterprise System Inc., a university shuttle bus service that runs between its Chicago-based Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses. The Free Enterprise System shuttle buses run on B7 blends, but an increased supply of biodiesel should eliminate the use of nearly 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel every year in the company's six Loyola buses, according to Tuchman.

As former CUERP director, Tuchman was instrumental in creating LUC's biodiesel program. She says that programs like these appeal to students because it's a technology that doesn't require just chemistry majors' involvement in the program anymore, but rather a host of students with different disciplines interested in gaining hands-on experience. "Another reason is that when our students hear in lectures about global climate change throughout their curriculum, they begin to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair," Tuchman says. "I think having students design, develop and build a solution to a problem like this with their own hands is empowering."

Formed in 2007, LUC's biodiesel program was awarded a $10,000 grant from the EPA to implement a new education model on campus called, "Solutions to Environmental Problems," or STEP. The program received an additional $75,000 grant from the EPA for high school outreach and is now its own stand-alone program, according to Tuchman.

While current and prospective students continue to express interest in programs like these, available state or federal funding is another driving force behind decisions to get programs up and running. Ina, Ill.-based Rend Lake College was awarded a $60,835 USDA grant in October to support the launch of a three-part biofuels education program, which will include training on farm-based biodiesel production. Linda Dention, RLC professor of physics and physical science who will oversee the program when it officially begins in the spring, says that available federal funding wasn't the main factor behind creating programs like these. She says that universities should find their niche based on location, community need and educational targets. "We started looking at it because of the community demand," she says. "We live in a poor rural area and we wanted to educate people how they can produce biodiesel themselves."

RLC's biofuels program is funded for 18 months, but Denton says she is hoping to find additional money to allow the program to continue into the future. Although the college hasn't yet considered the possibility of expanding the program to offer a two-year degree focused on biofuels, Denton says it could be a possibility in the future if RLC identifies sufficient student demand.
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