On the desk of Jim Hannon, physical plant services director at St. Ambrose University, sits a mason jar with a silver lid. In it, a thick amber liquid that looks like maple syrup. This is no topping for pancakes, though. It's the fuel that powers the campus maintenance equipment: biodiesel. For the past three years, Hannon and his crew have been experimenting with a process to turn used cooking oil from the Cosgrove Cafeteria into this clean-burning alternative fuel.
Biodiesel has some remarkable advantages. It's nontoxic, biodegradable, and cost-effective to produce. Every gallon of biodiesel Hannon and his crew generate costs approximately 70 cents to make, resulting in an annual savings of $6,000-$10,000 over purchased fuel. Using biodiesel also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to traditional diesel. Best of all, engines don't have to be modified to use it.
Although the biodiesel project results in significant savings for Ambrose, Hannon sees a
more important outcome. "We're an educational institution, and we should be a leader
in this type of experiment in technology, whether it be in the classroom or through the maintenance department," he explains. At the moment, St. Ambrose is one of only two institutions of higher learning in the state of Iowa converting reclaimed cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.
Hopefully, that may not be the case for long. This year, Ambrose received a $35,000 grant from the Scott County Regional Authority to support ongoing development of the university's biodiesel operation. The funds will help build a new location in which to convert the cooking oil into fuel. In this space, the physical plant staff also plans to conduct quarterly training sessions for other colleges and universities hoping to follow St. Ambrose's lead. The new space will likewise allow students in chemistry and environmental science courses to get a look at a state-of-the-art fuel conversion process.
To make the biodiesel, the physical plant crew takes 40 gallons of used cooking oil and filters it to remove any impurities. The oil is then mixed with methanol and lye, allowed to sit, washed, and finally put through a drying process to remove excess water. The end result is 36 gallons of biodiesel, ready to be used.
"People told me it would smell like french fries in our lawnmowers," says Hannon, chuckling. Instead, it's as green as it gets-the only scent is of freshly mown grass.
Learn more about biodiesel at www.biodiesel.org.