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From French fries to fuel: Researchers convert campus cooking oil to shuttle fuel blend

by Judy Hughes last modified Nov 05, 2009 11:20 AM

Used cooking oil from dining facilities at the University of Louisville is helping to fuel a campus shuttle bus in a research-based recycling pilot program.

Eric Berson, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and students at Speed School of Engineering are converting spent oil from Sodexo Inc., UofL's campus food-service provider, into biodiesel fuel that can be blended to power a UofL-owned bus shuttling Belknap Campus students.

Initial tests have been successful in the effort to turn a waste material into a useful product and to demonstrate campus sustainability, Berson said. The project also is an example of research at UofL's Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship.

The first shuttle runs have been on a blend of about 5 percent biodiesel, although the mixture may be adjusted up to 10 percent to 20 percent later.

Oil drained from food fryers is filtered and loaded into a laboratory processing tank for three days of chemical cleaning, processing and settling between steps. The process involves stringent testing under ASTM (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, and the effort to cleanse the final product of impurities involves a dry-wash system that eliminates waste water used in some other processes. Recently purchased equipment allows the group to run the experiments on a bigger scale - about 50 gallons at a time.

Preliminary work to run test batches on a small scale began last year with chemical engineering undergraduate Kelly Nicholson of Louisville, now a master's student. Sean Miller of Eastview, a junior chemical engineering student, now oversees the process as part of his engineering co-op - one of three alternating semesters that Speed requires to complete a master's degree. Amlan Chakraborty of India, a chemical engineering doctoral student, also works on the project.

Future research on the project will include converting waste glycerin to methane for electricity generation and exploring solid-based, reusable catalysts, Berson said.

 Gov. Steve Beshear recently appointed Berson to the state's new Executive Task Force on Biomass and Biofuels Development.

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