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Students research biodiesel fuel from different angles

May 14, 2012

The two senior projects that focused on biodiesel fuel actually originated three years ago in McDaniel’s dining hall when Chemistry professor Brian Wladkowski wondered aloud to his colleagues what happened to the oil used to cook the fries on their plates.

“Everybody had fries, and I wondered what food service does with used cooking oil,” says Wladkowski, an alumnus of the college who returned to teach in 1995 after earning his Ph.D. at Stanford. “I had heard there was a process to convert it into fuel, but I didn’t know much about it.”

Back in his office after that fateful lunch, Wladkowski found an abundance of information on the internet about converting used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. He discovered that the chemical process is straight-forward if a bit messy and the equipment not terribly complicated. But it does require a ready source of used cooking oil.

“The brilliance of the process is that once the oil is chemically converted, it works in any diesel engine,” Wladkowski says. “It is a classic example of recycling and has the other advantages of being more environmentally friendly, with better fuel efficiency, less emission and less wear-and-tear on the engine.”

From the student standpoint, biodiesel fuel as a topic gave students a research focus that was practical and exciting – not simply an academic exercise. Graduating seniors Louis Lachman and Ken Coffey went right for it. Lachman, a Chemistry major from Woodstock, Md., researched the effects of different amounts of catalyst on the synthesis of biodiesel fuel using 10 gallons of unused canola oil purchased at a local retailer, since it was important his oil had no contaminants.

Coffey, an Environmental Policy and Science major from Walkersville, Md., not surprisingly looked at biodiesel fuel from the opposite view – the footprints it leaves behind. He wired his own apparatus that would help him measure engine values as the biodiesel fuel burned and bought an enormous Army diesel generator from a government surplus store. With the help of friends he restored the generator, parked behind the loading dock of McDaniel’s science building, to working condition.

Lachman helped him produce about 40 gallons of biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil from Harry’s restaurant on Westminster’s Main Street. Ultimately, Coffey explored the running characteristics of the fuel, looking at exhaust gas temperatures and make-up, fuel consumption and the like.

Although the projects served his students well – and his own knowledge of biodiesel fuel has grown exponentially – Wladkowski still wonders what the project could be if he had a ready supply of used cooking oil. With conversion costs at about 50 cents a gallon (and one gallon of used oil produces a gallon and a half of biodiesel fuel), why couldn’t they produce biodiesel fuel to run the college vehicles and other machinery?

Currently, McDaniel doesn’t have a lot of diesel vehicles, but Wladkowski sees that as a minor problem, saying that over time diesel vehicles could replace gas-burning vehicles. He estimates it would take about 100 gallons of biodiesel fuel a month to power all the vehicles.

The bigger problem is a ready source of used cooking oil. And that’s something he’s working on with the college’s food service, which contracts with a company to haul away the oil.

“This is a great way for students to learn science,” he says. “And that’s what we’re about here.”

 
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