Fuel from fries: Den waste used by students to make biodiesel

By Chris Pedersen

The norms of bar food are greasy fries, a juicy hamburger with grease dripping onto the plate, nachos with tons of greasy meat and chicken wings soaking in oil. Many people eat these delicious foods, but very rarely do people contemplate what happens to the oil and grease when the server takes the plates away.

However, University of Calgary chemistry professor Dr. Ian Hunt and 300 second-year students did. Hunt and his students managed to turn waste vegetable oil and fat from the Den kitchens into biodiesel. According to Hunt, the Den was cooperative in seeing the waste go to a good cause.

“This project means that we can take waste vegetable oil and we can use that to make biodiesel,” he explained.

The waste is taken to labs in the chemistry department of the university. In the lab, students take 50 grams of vegetable oil and mix it with an alcohol and a base, heat it and the reaction creates biodiesel.

“Oils are made up of triglycerides and we break down the oil and fat to make a derivative of the fatty acids,” explained Hunt. “That is what biodiesel is: a methyl ester of a fatty acid. The biodiesel is similar to polyester and some types of solvents.”

The students then powered a diesel engine in a lab with the created fuel. The project was designed to be something that students can relate to. Biodiesel, oil and energy are all topics that are mentioned frequently in the news.

The project could potentially grow to using the fuel in vehicles around campus. The U of C currently has several vehicles that run on biofuels. The university could take this procedure and make its own fuel for the campus vehicles.

“If the U of C fleet trucks wanted to use the fuel, then the U of C could have the chemical engineering students’ partner with chemistry students to make a biodiesel plant for a semester project,” said Hunt.

There is an opportunity to take this from a small project to full use on campus. The quantity could be increased by the students and put into use around campus. We are taking a waste product that would only be thrown away, and turning it into fuel.

If biodiesel were to become more dominant as a source of fuel, the potential for huge demand for waste could be created, he noted. This type of fuel is also renewable unlike coal, oil, and natural gas.

“At some point you might want more waste oil than there is waste,” said Hunt. “But at the same time, it is better than the waste going to a landfill. This type of fuel is renewable; people can grow and produce vegetable oil.”

According to Hunt, biofuels may cause price increases for many types of vegetables and grains resulting in higher prices for consumers.

“The downside of [an increased use of] biofuel is that it will push up the costs of grains and vegetables,” said Hunt. “The impact of growing the vegetables, pesticides and tractors will also effect the environment negatively.”

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