Learning Curve

James Madison University Fuels Diversification Program graduates brilliant biodiesel minds
By Jessica Williams | May 01, 2004
Some may say the future of renewable fuels starts with education. If that is true, the students and faculty in the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Program (AFV) at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., are making promising strides toward energy independence.

According to director Carolyn Oglesby, biodiesel is a very popular alternative fuel with students in the program. Currently, students are working on biodiesel projects ranging from fuel production, infrastructure building, market conditioning and educational outreach to designing and creating biodiesel-electric hybrid vehicles.

"We strive to continue learning about biodiesel and hone our technical expertise at every opportunity so that we can act as a resource in the
community that understands the need to support clean, renewable, domestic fuels," Oglesby said.

The AFV Program began in 1996 with the donation of an electric passenger car from Dominion Power and an agreement between the JMU's Integrated Science and Technology Department (ISAT) and Facilities Management to support student projects in alternative fuels.
Jamie Winebrake, formerly of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and now with the Rochester Institute of Technology, directed the first AFV Program. Students under Winebrake's direction dealt primarily with electric vehicles (EV), energy efficiency and automobile emissions.

By 2002, the JMU AFV fleet had grown to include cars and light trucks that run on ethanol, compressed natural gas and biodiesel. That's when Oglesby, a former researcher at Bell Labs, took over Winebrake's position and switched the focus from vehicles to fuels. The program recently changed its name from the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Program to the Fuels Diversification Program. It now includes the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) Lab, directed by Dr. C.J. Brodrick, as well as the AFV Lab. The AFV Lab is a two-bay garage and fully appointed machine shop where the students do their hands-on projects under the direction of Randy Poag, mechanic and student mentor.

Student projects
All students in ISAT have to do a senior project and then present it to their peers, sponsors and faculty. Most projects take a whole year and, at the very least, results in a lengthy research paper. Oglesby shared with Biodiesel Magazine a broad range of topics and projects that former and current students have been working on.

For example, Lucian Reynolds, Brannon Balsley and Justin Miller have been designing and building a 15-gallon biodiesel factory that will transform waste vegetable oil into biodiesel to heat a local community center. This pilot production plant will be evaluated by JMU Recycling to establish whether it would be feasible to transform the university's waste oil from on-campus food services into fuel for heating or transportation. The factory will be installed in a trailer, making it a mobile demonstration piece for educational and outreach purposes.
Reynolds, Balsley and Miller are also transforming a retired golf cart into a biodiesel-electric series hybrid all-terrain vehicle for use in nearby Shenandoah National Park. This powerful ATV with reinforced suspension and a low center of gravity will charge its batteries using an on-board biodiesel generator, which will also be available for powering tools in remote regions of the park. Depending on how far the vehicle must travel, charging the batteries fully before starting out gives rangers the potential to drive a quiet, unobtrusive vehicle to work sites in the park without disturbing wildlife or visitors.

In another project, Chelsea Jenkins, Corinne Melville and Meghan Gemma are studying solutions to diesel transportation in Malta, an island south of Italy. In conjunction with JMU's summer abroad program, they will work with other agencies that are implementing biodiesel programs for the small, geographically isolated, diesel-dependent country in the Mediterranean Sea. This group will develop a biodiesel implementation plan, biodiesel availability maps and a biodiesel curriculum. The biodiesel curriculum will be designed so that it can be taught in segments in the schools or presented as a one-day workshop for adults. When Jenkins returns in the fall, she will continue to develop her senior honors thesis on the project.

Ashley Nguyen is another honors student with an interest in chemistry who is beginning her senior thesis on biodiesel. While most of the students attracted to biodiesel projects are concentrating in energy or environment, Nguyen is dual concentrating in energy and biotech. This fall, during wine-making season, Nguyen will investigate whether wine yeasts might make possible feedstock sources for biodiesel production.
In 2003, Rich McNiesh graduated with an award-winning thesis after he, with Poag's help, restored a small discarded diesel engine, put it on a frame with wheels and developed an electronic control system for it. This clean-burning diesel engine is available for demonstration in the AFV Lab to students and to people interested in using, making or selling biodiesel fuel. For his work, McNiesh won the ISAT senior thesis award in the instrumentation and measurements sector.

ISAT's biodiesel work with students has expanded to a local high school as well. One student, Deena Hannoun from Spotswood High School, who worked with Oglesby last fall and winter, recently won second prize at the regional science fair for her biodiesel-related project. Hannoun, a senior planning to study chemistry at the University of Virginia, explored how to make glycerin soaps from biodiesel production waste. She also analyzed ISAT's glycerin and compared it to commercially available purified glycerin using high-pressure liquid chromatography.

The Fuels Diversification Program is part of JMU's Integrated Science and Technology Department, where students enter a broad-based, four-year program of study that includes basic science, policy, business and ethics, and "concentrates" rather than "majors" in areas of applied science that present opportunities to solve contemporary problems. Students can graduate with concentrations in energy, environment, information and knowledge management, telecommunications, manufacturing, health systems, instrumentation and measurement, biotechnology or, if they're especially motivated and can attract faculty to work with them, a concentration that is tailored to their own interests, for example, transportation. Oglesby and Brodrick are designing courses and a program to make transportation an official concentration in ISAT.

Oglesby said the purpose of ISAT is to create well-rounded, scientifically literate students who can think like systems engineers and become professionals in project management, business and policy-making.

"We hope to be seeding the business world and government with people who will, in a decade or so, be informed and positioned to make a substantial difference in American business practices and quality of life," Oglesby said.

Biodiesel use spreads across campus
Oglesby, Poag and Brodrick didn't leave all the biodiesel work up to the students. Along with JMU Transportation Manager Mike Kauffman, the group convinced Facilities Management and the JMU administration to implement biodiesel in its fleet vehicles. In the spring of 2003, a pilot program was initiated to run three campus recycling trucks on B20. The test run was successful, and in April, JMU agreed to run all its campus vehicles-23 road vehicles and 28 landscape equipment vehicles-on B2 and its five recycling trucks and three garbage compactors with B20. Oglesby hopes that blend will increase over time. The university is working on siting another B20 tank in order to use the renewable fuel in lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment. JMU currently has a 250-gallon B20 tank and a 2,500-gallon B2 tank.

Brodrick and Oglesby continue to work with local transit directors with in the hope that the decision will be made to introduce biodiesel into city and campus transit buses, as well as county and city school buses.

Oglesby also helped to incorporate a non-profit agency called Blue Ridge Clean Fuels Inc. With support from the Hampton Roads Clean Cities coalition, the only designated Clean City in Virginia, she identified an executive director, Chad Freckman, to mount a new Clean Cities Program in the Harrisonburg/Charlottesville area. The organization's goal is to acquire DOE Clean Cities designation and further the implementation of biofuels in the area. With support from the Virginia State DOE, the organization is hosting a quarterly statewide Biofuels

Forum, which concentrates on biodiesel and ethanol implementation.

Oglesby also recently wrote a Request for Proposals for the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development organization that will solicit a feasibility study on the prospects for implementing a soybean crusher and biodiesel plant in Shenandoah Valley. Facilitating this effort is Holtzman Oil Corporation, the Valley's principal petroleum products distributor. In the last year, Holtzman Oil has made B2 available for retail sale at seven of its Liberty filling stations.

"Everyone in the program works very hard to promote biofuels awareness and to bring more biofuels into the region," Oglesby said. "We haven't turned down an invitation to speak yet."

Last winter, Oglesby and Brodrick represented biofuels and fuel cells on a local television talk show. Brodrick and Poag have promoted biodiesel in middle schools and the local Technical Training School. Last spring, Oglesby presented to the Optimist Club and the Virginia Soybean Association, and accepted invitations to discuss biomass energy for geography and anthropology classes, in addition to a renewable energy class.

Statewide biodiesel projects
Oglesby knows of two other Virginia biodiesel projects outside of JMU's campus. Valley Proteins is in the permit stage for building a biodiesel plant north of Harrisonburg that will use waste animal products and used vegetable oil feedstock. Near Norfolk, Noblett Oil has built the first soybean biodiesel production facility in the state with the help of the Virginia Soybean Association. Noblett Oil has been distributing biodiesel for the past four years, according to company spokesman Doug Faulkner, who said the purpose of the facility was to meet demand and to reverse the economic flow of money out of the country.

"It provides an energy payback that dwarfs petroleum diesel's and at the same time helps engines burn cleaner and more efficiently," Faulkner said.

Faulkner and Oglesby are currently working together to employ JMU students as biodiesel interns.
"From our perspective in Virginia, it seems that biodiesel is an idea whose time has come," Oglesby said.

Check out additional information on JMU's biodiesel program at www.cisat.jmu.edu/biodiesel. The Fuels Diversification Program at JMU gratefully acknowledges support from the University National Park Energy Partnership Project, from JMU Facilities Management and from the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at JMU.
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