Chico State students keep plugging away at biodiesel project
Steven Foust spends much of his free time pecking away at his laptop in Chico State’s plastics lab, but the computer codes he’s configuring aren’t part of some school assignment.
Foust is part of a team of students who’ve spent more than a year working to build a biodiesel processor. He’s now entrenched in the final stages of perfecting the machine that eventually will help several campus departments function more sustainably.
“The idea is based on recycling, reusing and eliminating waste,” said Foust, an engineering graduate student.
Last year, Foust and 21 other manufacturing technology students won the grand prize at the Western Tool Exposition and Conference, or WESTEC, for creating and presenting the processor that turns animal fats and vegetable oil into fuel. Chico State’s cafeterias generate a plentiful supply, so the project seemed like a good fit. Used vegetable oil from Whitney Hall’s deep fryer is the main source for the processor.
“The key to sustainability is that you find where there is a waste and you turn that waste into a beneficial product,” Foust said.
The WESTEC grand prize was the fourth in five years for Chico State’s student manufacturing team. Last year’s rewards included cash, a new computer and several thousand dollars’ worth of software packages.
Biodiesel processors are not a new invention, but these Chico State students are working on a more sophisticated version.
“The old model required someone pouring hazardous chemicals, and it was a very lengthy process,” Foust said. “We thought, ‘Why not make it an automated process, where you can just press a button and walk away?’ “
Creating an automated system was a complicated mix of applying computer technology to a manual layout. Donations from several local businesses totaling about $10,000 funded the students’ efforts. On their own time, they spent approximately 1,000 hours manufacturing a safer and more efficient—not to mention nicer-looking—biodiesel processor.
The processor has been successful in producing a partial batch of biodiesel, but the work is far from over.
Foust is now working to fool-proof a software system that will enable the processor to operate automatically and increase its production.
Once the processor is fully functional, it should produce up to 100 gallons of biodiesel at a time. The plan for the finished product is to use it to fuel a tractor at the University Farm that provides tours to grade schoolers and other visitors.
“The idea is that we can tell the tour, ‘The food you ate today will help fuel the tour of tomorrow,’ “ said Lau Anderson, the farm’s crops coordinator.
Anderson will have to alter the fuel lines of the heavy machinery to run on biodiesel, but he’s excited about the potential of this sustainable practice. Working with the fuel will give agriculture students hands-on experience with technology they likely will encounter in their future careers, as environmentally friendly farming techniques are adopted in the industry.
“In general, it fits in with everything we do here,” he said. “It’s a nice idea to take what most people consider waste and put it to work out here at the farm.”
Anderson sees the entire process as a cycle he said closes the food loop. Food produced on the farm heads to Whitney Hall; the waste generated in the cafeterias gets collected and converted to biodiesel; and the fuel heads back to the farm to run the equipment.
Foust agrees that the process will do more than eliminate waste: “It’s a great way to promote sustainability all over campus.”
Meanwhile, students in Chico State’s Marketing Department are interested in creating a business venture based on the student project. Ryne Johnson, director of the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship, has formed teams of marketing students who will focus on creating a business plan using rice waste products and the same technology design created by the engineering students.
Johnson, who’s also a partner at ChicoProject, a business-development company, says he was inspired by the processor.
“It’s an outstanding piece of machinery,” he said. “And I have always been personally interested in sustainable transportation.”
Dirk Vanderloop, a professor in the Manufacturing and Engineering Department, is proud of his students’ dedication to the long-term project and the resulting environmental benefits. He thinks other student projects centered on the idea of sustainability aren’t far off.
“By nature and definition,” he said, “engineering and technology students are in tune with energy efficiency and technical elegance.”