Students at UC Davis are aiming to turn waste into a commodity. After cooking countless meals for students, the dining commons produce around 200 gallons of vegetable oil waste per month. In the spirit of repurposing, students are striving to convert this waste vegetable oil (WVO) into biodiesel for tractors on the UC Davis student farms.
Will Klein and Ed Garrett had the idea for this project last winter quarter. When their proposal was accepted by faculty advisor Annaliese Franz, things started to come together. The project, while aiming to create biodiesel from WVO, also focuses on creating a successful lab procedure for students taking Chemistry 8B.
“Students will make biodiesel from the WVO from the DC, but on a smaller scale – at about 100 milliliters per student,” said Brendan Edwards, a junior biochemical engineering major.
Edwards, who manages the education side of the program, said that the biodiesel program is beneficial for teaching Chem 8B students about research.
Edwards explained how the conversion from WVO to biodiesel works.
“WVO is a triglyceride, which consists of glycerol – a three carbon chain with an alcohol on each carbon – as a back bone, with three fatty acids attached through ester bonds,” Edwards said.
Basically, the whole process boils down to: an alcohol plus a catalyst plus vegetable oil equals biodiesel.
“After the reaction, the most important step is separation and purification of the biodiesel,” Edwards said.
He said compounds called glycerol and un-reacted triglyceride have to be removed.
“If [the contamination] remains in the biodiesel, it can settle out and form deposits that can gum up engines, and it is bad for emissions, too,” Edwards said.
Leo Zhang, a senior biotechnology major, runs the business side of the project.
“The goal of the project is to be sustainable and to use minimal energy/cost to produce something useful from waste,” Zhang said.
He said that one of the biggest challenges the group faces is funding. They are trying to calculate specific costs, while acquiring old parts to save money.
Zhang said that if the project is successful, it would be very sustainable because producing biodiesel requires minimal electric power.
Kathleen Go, a junior chemical engineering major, said that companies like Conoco-Philips and Chevron are investing in biodiesel research, so the results of the UC Davis project could be of real value not just to student farms, but to other powerful oil companies as well.
Go said that the group is currently looking to apply for grants that would cover their costs on the project.
“We really like what we do because it affects campus, and can be known by many people,” she said.
Go said that the group will be actively recruiting members during the winter quarter, in the hopes of making the project last long-term.
ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.