MIT Devises Vehicles Powered by Deep-Fry Vegetable Oil

MIT Dining's Fry-o-lators work almost around the clock to serve up French fries and chicken fingers. And every month, MIT pays $1.10 a gallon to cart away the used-up vegetable oil that made those fried foods taste so good.

A student-led initiative known as [email protected] wants to see that dark brown waste liquid processed on campus into certifiable biodiesel and pumped into the tanks of MIT's growing number of diesel campus vehicles, such as the Tech Shuttles, which will soon use up to 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, and others owned by the Department of Facilities.

The goal, according to Matt Zedler, a senior mechanical engineering major from Richmond, Va., is to have this up and running by April. It's ambitious, he admitted, but the group of around 20 students and administrators calling themselves [email protected] is confident they can make it happen.

"MIT wants to 'walk the talk' on energy and the environment, and I believe that this project will pave the way for more student-led campus sustainability initiatives," said Joseph D. Roy-Mayhew, a junior chemical-biological engineering major who first looked into the feasibility of an on-campus biodiesel processor during a January 2006 IAP class sponsored by the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. He further developed the idea with support from a Campus Sustainability UROP through the Environmental Programs Office. Zedler and more than a dozen others have since taken up the cause.

[email protected] proposes to install a processor to convert used vegetable oil (UVO) to biodiesel and to later help plan a solar-powered fueling station where this local biodiesel would be available. The 20 percent bio-derived fuel called B20 would be useable by most MIT diesel vehicles, all of which currently have to go off-campus to fuel up.

The up-front $15,000 price tag would buy a processor (although MIT students could build their own, the need for fuel certification and a short timeline led to the decision to purchase a commercial processor), pay for a system to collect the UVO from MIT Campus Dining and pay student operators to process the UVO. MIT would save $4,000 a year in UVO disposal costs and potentially save upwards of $12,000 a year in reduced petroleum diesel costs. Using vegetable-based diesel would also significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from MIT's diesel fleet.

The group entered its proposal for a solar-powered UVO processor as part of an on-campus filling station in a national contest sponsored by GE Ecomagination and mtvU, MTV's 24-hour college network, in which college students from around the country were asked to develop new, creative ways to green their campuses.

[email protected] is one of 10 finalists that mtvU will profile online and on air on Feb. 12.

In March, judges will select the winner. Projects will be judged on ecology, economics and creativity. The winning school will receive a $25,000 grant and a free mtvU concert by the group Angels and Airwaves on Earth Day in April 2007.

If MIT wins the grant, it would go toward a biodiesel processor in a solar-powered filling station. Even if they don't win, the group hopes to install a biodiesel processor on campus until more funding is secured. MIT Facilities is developing a proposal for an on-campus filling station, and, if that goes forward, the biodiesel processor could be incorporated.

The biodiesel project would be a tangible contribution toward the "campus as learning laboratory" aspect of the MIT Energy Initiative established by MIT President Susan Hockfield in the fall. Zedler envisions professors using the processor-fueling station for research or as part of a class; mechanical engineering students using the facility to test different kinds of engines with the alternative fuel; and chemical engineering students seeing first-hand how such processors work.

Eventually, Zedler said, the system may be expanded to make an ever-greater dent in MIT's overall $50 million annual energy budget, especially as more of the university's shuttles convert to diesel. "Recycling used vegetable oil on MIT's campus represents an initial stride toward more sustainable campus operations, and I feel the level of support for this project from the students and administrators in the MIT community is a clear indicator of the desire for such on-campus greening projects now and in the future," Zedler said.

"We keep looking for new ways to create and store energy, yet we often don't look at how we could use what we already have more efficiently or in unorthodox ways," Roy-Mayhew said.

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