From fries to freighters

Brandon Curtis and Nick Wang, researchers in the Biodiesel Cooperative Group, hope to convert used cooking oil from Housing and Food Services Dining Halls into clean fuel. Photo by Cassie Czarnetzke

A few UW trucks may soon be leaving an aromatic trail of french fries and fried chicken in their wake if a few sustainably minded students get their way.

The Biodiesel Cooperative, led by a group of engineering students, is looking to convert a few thousand gallons of wasted cooking oil into biodiesel that could be used on campus in place of traditional fuel.

The group is currently competing for a $5,000 grant in the Social Innovation Fast Pitch competition (SIFP), where teams vie for funding with a five-minute project pitch that best represents an aim for innovation, sustainability and leadership in the areas of public health, environment and social change.

Senior Kathryn Cogert, a founding member of the group, said the co-op started out as a class project to look for an eco-friendly resource that could be used on campus.

Cogert and her team will compete in the final stage of the SIFP after contending with nearly 120 other competitors. If they win the top honor and its $5,000 award, the group plans to get an oil loading system that would be used to monitor all of the incoming oil from HFS.

UW Housing and Food Services (HFS) has made a 3,000-gallon commitment of waste oil per year — enough to make approximately 2,300 gallons of biodiesel and a few hundred gallons of glycerin, the main ingredient used to make soap.

By mixing methanol with the oil and adding heat, a chemical process turns the old fry oil into biodiesel with zero waste left over as a byproduct.

Shannon Ewanick, a forest resources post-doctoral student helping out with the project, said the group’s organization and take-charge attitude has led to strong support from the university.

“It’s been an entirely undergraduate student-run operation,” she said. “They’ve done it all by themselves, and I’ve only had to be a liaison between them and faculty who have helped set up lab space.”

Cogert said that after the SIFP, the co-op is going to start producing and selling the biodiesel to the university at around $3.50 a gallon to recoup costs without the need for continuous funding from outside sources.

The group will produce enough oil to fuel three UW trucks for an entire year.

“We have a better advantage on the biodiesel compared to [other] companies because, for one, it’s used for education, and two, they have to make the biodiesel and ship it to distributors, and we can process it on campus,” she said.

The co-op’s motto of “Fostering Tomorrow’s Energy Innovators” represents its mission to create non-profit, student-produced biodiesel to provide cheap, renewable fuel for campus vehicles and generators.

Cogert said the group prepares students with hands-on training in a rapidly growing sector of the engineering market.

“What we do prepares students for an in-demand, growing economy in the alternative energy field where students will end up getting a job, compared to the limited opportunities available in the petroleum industry,” she said.

The current budget to convert the cooking oil is around $7,900 for complete production, but the co-op is looking for other possibilities to lower the costs and increase the yield.

When production begins, oil will filter in from many HFS locations on campus, including McMahon, 1101 and By George, with additional reserves from the future HUB and Café 815 Mercer at Lake Union.

Cogert said the group already has approval to sell soap made from the glycerin waste product of the process in campus convenience stores to help offset costs.

She also said that win or lose, the group will start on the path toward conversion following the SIFP competition, and that they eventually hope to be the ones to overhaul the engines of the trucks that would be using the biodiesel.

The lab would not be up and operational until next year because the biodiesel has to be refined and tested to national industry standards.

“We would like to have the plant fully operational by the end of March … we can have good quality fuel that the motor fleet on campus can use and that we hope they’ll be thrilled to have,” Cogert said.

The biodiesel co-op will compete at the SIFP finals Oct. 3 at Fisher Pavilion in Seattle Center in front of a crowd of more than 600.

News Editor Nick Visser contributed to this report. Reach reporter Suzanne Cho at news@dailyuw.com.

Please read our Comment policy.