Ox­ford or­ganic chem­istry stu­dents make biodiesel for ser­vice project

The Covington News - - Front Page - By Michelle Kim

The idea first struck Ox­ford chem­istry in­struc­tor Brenda Har­mon as she was wait­ing to pick up her chil­dren from school. She no­ticed a funny smell com­ing from the car in front of her. Al­most like French fries, she said, but French fries gone a lit­tle bad. The bumper sticker on the car read, “Ask me about biodiesel.”

So when a dis­cus­sion about ser­vice learn­ing projects came up among the Ox­ford fac­ulty, she sug- gested that her sec­ond- se­mes­ter or­ganic chem­istry stu­dents, as their ser­vice project, could make biodiesel that could be used by the com­mu­nity.

Har­mon ap­plied for a $ 3,500 grant from Emory’s Of­fice of Sus­tain­abil­ity Ini­tia­tives that al­lowed her to pur­chase a large biodiesel pro­ces­sor and elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tor.

This se­mes­ter, Har­mon saw the idea fi­nally be­come a re­al­ity as about 10 of her or­ganic chem­istry stu­dents took used cook­ing oil from the cam­pus cafe­te­ria and turned it into 40 gal­lons of in­dus­try-stan­dard biodiesel.

“It’s been so ex­cit­ing! To know that this is biodiesel and it is pure,” said Har­mon, her face light­ing up.

The process it­self is not com­pli­cated, said Har­mon. She points out any­body can make biodiesel, not just chemists.

The recipe they used es­sen­tially in­volves adding a cat­a­lyst, sodium methox­ide, to fil­tered waste veg­etable oil, which sep­a­rates it into biodiesel and glyc­er­ine.

Drain­ing away the glyc­er­ine and sep­a­rat­ing other im­pu­ri­ties from the biodiesel, such as wa­ter and soapy residues, leaves biodiesel ready to use.

The class first made small batches in beak­ers and elec­tric hot plates in the lab, based on a recipe from a pop­u­lar bio­fu­els Web site.

But tak­ing that process and mul­ti­ply­ing it into larger, us­able quan­ti­ties was a whole other ball game.

“I bit off a lit­tle more than I could chew, I think,” said Har­mon, who de­scribed strug­gling to lift a 250-pound bar­rel in and out of the lab and work­ing the kinks out of test­ing a very noisy gen­er­a­tor. “I’ve learned so much.”

The first time she saw the oil and sodium method­x­ide mix­ture cir­cu­lat­ing through the boiler’s tubes, she was so ex­cited she hugged the bar­rel.

Though Har­mon has been the driv­ing force be­hind the project, her stu­dents have been just as in­ter­ested and in­volved.

Hong Tran, 20, a sopho­more whose in­de­pen­dent study project was mak­ing biodiesel, said at first it was in­tim­i­dat­ing. But ul­ti­mately, the ex­pe­ri­ence helped her to de­cide that she wanted to ma­jor in chem­istry.

The biodiesel will be used to run an in­flat­able bouncy house at Ox­ford Col­lege’s Earth Day Cel­e­bra­tion, but find­ing other uses for it has been a bit more dif­fi­cult.

Even though the stu­dents tested the pu­rity of their biodiesel to make sure it was up to in­dus­try stan­dards, peo­ple are re­luc­tant to use it in their cars, said Har­mon.

“It’s a new idea,” she said. “It’s go­ing to take some time.”

Emory’s shut­tle buses cur­rently run on a B20 mix­ture, which means 20 per­cent of the diesel is biodiesel, but be­cause of li­a­bil­ity rea­sons, they haven’t been able to in­cor­po­rate the stu­dents’ biodiesel into the sup­ply.

Even though biodiesel is ex­cit­ing, there are draw­backs, said Har­mon. In many cases, hav­ing a fuel-ef­fi­cient gaso­line car may be a big­ger en­ergy sav­ings than us­ing biodiesel.

And some of the in­gre­di­ents in the recipe they used, such as methanol and sodium hy­drox­ide (lye), need to be han­dled with care as they are caus­tic and flammable.

Still, Har­mon plans to con­tinue the biodiesel project with stu­dents in the com­ing semesters.

“What makes it nice is to see stu­dents ex­cited about this and want to make a dif­fer­ence,” she said. “That’s hope for the fu­ture.”

Web sites for more in­for­ma­tion: jour­neyto­for­ever.org/biodiesel_ mike.html www.re­fu­el­biodiesel.org Biodiesel lo­ca­tions: www. biodiesel.org/buy­ing­biodiesel/ re­tail­fu­el­ingsites/ E85 Ethanol lo­ca­tions: www. e85re­fu­el­ing.com

Mandi Singer/The Cov­ing­ton News

Chem­istry of change: Hong Tran, 20, a sopho­more at Ox­ford Col­lege of Emory Univer­sity, mea­sures the tem­per­a­ture of beaker of heated waste veg­etable oil as she pre­pares it to be pro­cessed into biodiesel.

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