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Who Said it Was a Bad Idea to Play with Your Food?

An ingenious team of undergraduates didn’t think it was a bad idea.   Chris Babcock ’07, David Borrelli ’09, Dan Fink ’09, and Eric Weissmann ’10 submitted UR Biodiesel as an idea for Rochester’s Charles and Janet Forbes Entrepreneurial Competition back in fall 2006. Their business plan proposed a way to save the University money by converting waste vegetable oil from River Campus dining centers, which were paying to have the waste product removed, into biodiesel to power buses. Earning a second-place win, and garnering encouragement from the judges, the team decided to put their plan into action.

The idea has blossomed into a fully functioning lab that produces about 30 gallons of biodiesel each week. The biodiesel is blended with diesel, at a ratio of 80 percent diesel, 20 percent biodiesel. In addition to being used in the campus shuttle, two University contractors, AEY and P&J construction companies, use biodiesel in on-site equipment such as backhoes.

How is biodiesel made?

Waste vegetable oil is transported from dining locations to holding tanks.  From there the oil is prefiltered, then pumped into a water heater that warms it while mixing in methanol and potassium hydroxide.  Next the liquid travels to 3 more tanks for additional cleaning and drying.  Once the mixture is dry – voila – the biodiesel is ready.  It take about 3 days to process a batch.

This project includes a significant academic component. Ben Ebenhack, senior lecturer in the chemical engineering department and the project’s faculty advisor, allows students to run experiments in his lab to test the science behind the biodiesel processor. Students who do work in the lab also can receive course credit through an independent study.

But what about the bus?

The UR Biodiesel bus began operation on Earth Day, April 22nd, 2009. It runs primarily on the Green Line (pun intended) that transports students to local shopping centers. The bus also occasionally subs in on the other bus lines.

After years of hard work and success, recognition of this project has expanded beyond our local community.  On March 2, UR Biodiesel was given the Excellence in Innovations for Sustainability Award by the Association of College Unions International (ACUI).

According to the ACUI, the award recognizes a member of the association that has done the most to solve “environmental challenges by using innovative and environmentally sustainable practices or creative partnerships.” The ACUI looks for a project that has a “significant or novel sustainability advantage” and the “potential to deliver major benefits to the community.”

UR Biodiesel depends on support from administrative units, including Dining Services, River Campus Facilities, Parking and Transportation Services, and the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. With the last of the 4 founding members graduating this year, the continued leadership of UR Biodiesel will be dependent on student groups like Engineers for a Sustainable World and students like you.

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