Luther produces biodiesel for sustainability

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May 18, 2009

Transforming refuse into resources

Hungry students at Luther College are contributing to sustainable college operations, one deep-fried chicken strip at a time.

Luther is converting waste vegetable cooking oils from its Food Service operations into biodiesel as fuel for powering Facilities Services grounds crews' utility vehicles. Instead of paying to dispose of cafeteria fryer oil as a waste product, Luther staff member Kevin Ellingson uses it to brew a cleaner alternative fuel.

"Brewing and using biodiesel is good for the college, the economy and the environment and we need to be aware of those things," said Ellingson. "Anytime you take a waste product and turn it into a resource by means of chemically altering the material, it is a good thing."

Biodiesel is an alternative fuel that can be used in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine alone or mixed in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel. At Luther, biodiesel is blended 50-50 with petroleum diesel and is used in utility vehicles such as lawn and turf tractors.

Jon Jensen, professor of environmental studies, first approached Ellingson about a biodiesel program in 2006, expressing an interest in brewing biodiesel as an assignment for one of his classes.

Ellingson built Luther's first biodiesel reactor using diagrams provided by Jensen, who has years of research in small-scale biodiesel production. Ellingson was able to enhance the design because of his own background in chemistry and plumbing.

"Knowledge is so valuable because when you know how to do something, you can teach others how to do it too," said Ellingson, who was working as a preventative maintenance mechanic when he started with the biodiesel program. "Processes like creating biodiesel are learned skills that can be a tool to making the environment cleaner, safer and more cost effective."

In May 2007, Luther purchased an Ester Machine, a biodiesel production machine that converts waste vegetable oil into the alternative fuel. Ellingson brewed approximately 1,100 gallons of biodiesel during the Ester Machines first year of operation.

The main reaction used to produce biodiesel is a transesterfictation that involves mixing oil, alcohol and a catalyst, usually lye, in approximate ratios of 80 percent, 20 percent, and 0.35 percent respectively.

Ellingson said it takes eight to 10 hours to produce the 80-gallon batches of biodiesel, and the fuel is stored in 55-gallon drums for use throughout the year. Since there have been no problems with the 50-50 blend Elllingson uses, he plans to increase the vegetable oil-standard diesel fuel mixture to a ratio of 75-25 in future batches.

The benefits of using biodiesel include reductions in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, no sulfur emissions, and lead-free exhaust. The fuel is biodegradable, so it is safer to handle and less toxic than regular diesel.

"A lot can stem from how we choose to make ourselves 'greener,' and budget our resources," said Ellingson, who now serves as the primary brewer of biodiesel at Luther. "Using biodiesel on campus helps the community's ideas about alternative fuels and opens peoples perspectives about the other options that are available."

One of the goals in Luther's five-year strategic plan is to cut the college's carbon footprint in half. Over the past five years, the college has already reduced its campus carbon footprint by 15 percent, and Ellingson said the biodiesel program helps move Luther toward its goal in both direct and indirect ways.

"We use all of the biodegradable byproducts for composting on campus grounds, mainly mixed in with the compost used on the Luther garden," said Ellingson. "So not only are we cutting costs and not putting out carbon like with regular diesel, but we are connected to and helping out other sustainability initiatives on campus."

Ellingson said Luther is still in the early testing stages of biodiesel production but has invested enough in the program that it is here to stay.

"We are working toward the highest efficiency we can find to be an institution that is trying to break the threshold and become more environmentally friendly," said Ellingson. "We are so used to throwing things away so we need to really make a change in our ways of thought."

"Learning about new processes might change a person's perspective or help them reconsider how we purchase things or make decisions in our lives," he said.

Caption: Kevin Ellingson, Luther College's primary biodiesel brewer, ensures the proper ratios of biodiesel ingredients are used in one of the many batches he brewed with the Ester Machine.