Biodiesel project contributes to campus going green

Alex Slavas

Sacramento State mechanical  engineering students are working toward their goal of promoting sustainability on campus with a senior project that will convert waste oil from campus kitchens into biodiesel fuel.

Seniors Lydia Palma, Adi Prieto, Borannie Buth and Manmeet Minhas said they felt the urge to find an engaging topic for their senior project, as the semester had already begun and they were without an idea. With the help of Michael Christensen, co-chair of the Sustainability Steering Committee, the students decided to pursue the idea of constructing a biodiesel production unit.

The Sustainability Steering Committee of Sac State is an organization that helps facilitate, encourage and promote the use of sustainable technologies, Christensen said.

The group said Christensen had a few good ideas, but this one stood out.

“Anything green and envi-ronmentally-friendly interests me,” Palma said. “Our goal is to produce the same amount of diesel that is used to fuel the equipment on campus.”

Palma said their idea will reduce costs because the school would not have to export kitchen waste oil, nor will they have to rely on external sources to attain fuel.

According to the group’s senior project proposal, Sac State expends about 276 gallons per month to fuel diesel-powered grounds equipment. At $4 per gallon, that is more than $1,000 per month.

It also states the biodiesel production unit will cost up to $5,000 and biodiesel fuel costs about $1.25 per gallon to make.

The proposal said if the system produces 125 gallons of biodiesel fuel per month, it will pay for itself in 16 months.

With the help of grants, the group said the expenses of their project will be covered.

“We received $1,000 in grants from the Greenovation Fund and $5,000 given to us from the sustainability committee,” Palma said.

Palma and Prieto said they have made contact with several local companies that have taken interest in their project.

“They said they are really excited about it… (some said they) would donate or help us out with ideas,” Prieto said.

Although projects similar to this one have been done previously, the group said it feels its campus-focused idea is what sets theirs apart from others.

“The neat thing is that it is actually helping the school (by) turning waste into something much better,” Prieto said.

The process of converting vegetable oil into biodiesel is divided into three subsystems, which include filtration, reaction and settling, and washing.

“The filtration subsystem filters out the water and food that are found in the oil, which comes straight out of the restaurants.” Prieto said.

The reaction and settling step includes adding in a catalyst, which will induce a chemical reaction producing both biodiesel and glycerin. It has to set for 24 hours so the two fluids will separate, and then the glycerin is taken out. The biodiesel is then washed to get rid of excess glycerin and other unwanted materials, Prieto said.

The finished biodiesel product will then be used to fuel the grounds maintenance equipment on campus, such as lawn mowers and edgers. Christensen said the senior project is split up into two stages which include designing and building.

“Last semester was the design phase (and) this semester is the build phase, where the first quantity of biodiesel will be produced,” he said.

The building phase is also divided into two presentations – an informal presentation mid-semester followed by a formal presentation open to the public at the end of the semester.

“This semester, we have to have our project assembled by the eighth week,” Prieto said. “The (mid-semester) presen-tation is an update on our progress to the class, and the final presentation is where we present our work on campus … to anyone who wants to come.”

The group feels their project will positively impact the campus by saving money and creating a cleaner environment.

“It will enhance the image of school by making it more environmentally-friendly,” Palma said.

Christensen said the role of the sustainability committee is to push students to come up with ideas and work together as a group in order to achieve goals.

“We don’t act as an approving body, but we encourage people to take action on their own, rather than asking for permission,” he said.

Christensen said the committee’s goal is to facilitate the ideas of groups and students as well as educate them on possible obstacles that may be encountered, ultimately to make a positive impact with the work they have done.

“One step at a time, one project at a time, we’re going to make a difference – a real positive difference,” he said.

Alex Slavas can be reached at [email protected].