Squeezed between bare stone walls ornamented with external wiring and cobwebs, Rachel Whittaker, senior biochemistry major from Cartersville, Ga., pumps 25 gallons of waste cooking oil from the Bean’s kitchen into a giant plastic funnel.
While she does not mind getting messy, the used oil is tricky to work with, Whittaker said.
“It’s really brown and goopy, and smells distinctly of French fries,” Whittaker said.
Whittaker is making a batch of biodiesel. Â A secluded shed on the ACU Rhoden Farm is her lab, and the frying oil is her reactant – along with seven gallons of methanol and almost four pounds of potassium hydroxide.
Whittaker, along with Dr. Eric Hardegree, professor of chemistry, completed ACU’s first batch of biodiesel in June. Since then, they have produced about 55 gallons of fuel.
“This project has probably been three years in the making,” Hardegree said. “We’re now at the stage where we can make about as much biodiesel as the Bean can produce.”
Dr. James Cooke, professor of agricultural and environmental sciences, has been collaborating with the Department of Chemistry and Food Services on this project for years, Hardegree said.
Having tested the biodiesel to insure that it meets industry standards, ACU has cleared the fuel to be tested in an old John Deere Gator – the green cart often used by the landscaping crew, Cooke said. The Gator could be running on a blend of 10 percent biodiesel with petroleum diesel as soon as next week. The only thing Cooke is waiting for now is signage for the Gator to promote the sustainable energy project.
Hardegree said if this biodiesel blend passes the first engine test, he will slowly increase its percentage. He hopes to put 100 percent biodiesel into the Gator by summer.
Hardegree’s goal is to convert all of the Bean’s waste oil into biodiesel that can be used in the tractors on Rhoden Farm. This first attempt to generate sustainable energy has the potential to benefit both the university and the environment, Hardegree said.
“It gives out a very low amount of soot compared to normal diesel,” Hardegree said. “It’s environmentally responsible and removes the disposal fee for the waste oil.”
In addition to putting together the most efficient “recipe” for making the biofuel, Hardegree and Whittaker are working on reusing their own waste. Right now they are producing about 20-22 gallons of biodiesel from 25 gallons of oil, not including the other chemicals used in the process, Hardegree said.
Hardegree and Whittaker are finding ways to retrieve the unreacted oil and chemicals to reuse or convert into biofuel through other means, Hardegree said.
“This is a small project that will make a small difference in waste material and economics in ACU.” Hardegree said. “We’re not trying to fuel the world here, we’re just trying to close the loop.”
ACU is giving its support to the project, Hardegree said. It has plans to run a waterline to the shed – a vast improvement from the garden hoses and buckets he and Whittaker have had to rig up for their work. Whittaker said the prospect of a working sink in her lab was fantastic.