Eat Lots of Fries, Make Biodiesel

(Feb. 13, 2007) — What started curiously with a “What if?” is fueling student lab work, lessons in environmental science–and Manchester College lawnmowers, a maintenance van, and leaf blowers.

What if the college converted that used vegetable frying oil from Chartwells dining service into biodiesel, wondered Jeff Osborne, assistant professor of chemistry. “The concept of taking a waste product, such as vegetable oil, and converting it into something useful is what I like,” the scientist noted.

Chartwells was happy to provide the cash and to part with its grease for education, and for stewardship of the environment and the college’s fuel resources.

Osborne found plans for an “Appleseed reactor” on the internet. The name is for the spirit of the reactor: that people should spread the recycling word like Johnny did his appleseed and make their own nonprofit, biodiesel contraption.

The process is fairly simple: Osborne and a student researcher mix methanol and lye (sodium hydroxide) with the vegetable oil in an 80-gallon water heater for three hours, then pump the mixture into a separation tank. In the tank, the biodiesel rises to the top and glycerol, which forms during the reaction, sinks to the bottom with other by-products and is drained out. Then, the biodiesel is washed with water, turning it the color of honey–and not smelling a bit like diesel. They are creating fuel so safe a curious animal could swallow a taste or two without harm. The fuel also is very difficult to ignite with a match. And the biodiesel actually can clean deposits out of the fuel tank.

Manchester is using its biodiesel in lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and some vehicles. The fuel requires no alterations to the equipment, said campus mechanic Cornelius “Corny” Troyer. An engine that runs on diesel will run on biodiesel, too, although he is quick to note there are cold-weather challenges and that Manchester is far from fueling all of its vehicles with the grease concoction.

Test runs began a year ago, when January Session students in Osborne’s Chemical Science class first poured their experiment into an engine. Troyer is still pretty sneaky as he oversees the biodiesel fueling of Manchester College equipment. He doesn’t tell machine operators they are running biodiesel so they won’t form preconceived notions about the fuel or how it affects their engines. He’ll arrive at work at 5 a.m., just so no one sees which fuel he is pouring into the tanks. So far, nary a complaint, although mower Carl Strike is quite certain he’s whiffing French fries as he crisscrosses the campus mall.

Amanda Patch, a biology-chemistry major from Otterbein, Ind., is assisting Osborne and helped to demonstrate the project at what students say is one of the neatest convocations ever, with fireballs, a huge mower on stage, a boots-clad executive, explosions, and fire extinguishers at the ready.

Patch has medical school in her future. “I’m doing this because I have to give back to Manchester somehow and this is a great way to do that while learning about chemistry and the various solutions to energy,” she said.

What’s in it for the college? A constant reminder of the possibilities of biodiesel to students, faculty, and staff as they see mowing and leaf-blowing on campus. Good training in environmental science for students participating in the grease-to-diesel conversion. An environmentally cleaner campus and less landfill waste.

With assistance from its students, the college’s Biology and Chemistry departments can produce about 100 gallons of biodiesel per month. (Each batch is 50 gallons.) To supply the college’s need for 1,750 gallons a year would require larger equipment and a funding/staffing shift from the laboratory to the maintenance department.

And, of course, there’s the math: The college spends $2.60 to $2.80 per gallon for diesel (some already is manufactured biodiesel, Troyer notes). The biodiesel costs 80 cents a gallon to make in the lab during the school year, for a maximum output of 900 gallons–that’s a potential $1,800 savings for the college.

“Biodiesel is not the answer,” admits Osborne, who is quick to note that academics are not getting into the fuel business. “But we have to do something different to help protect the environment.”

To learn more about chemistry at Manchester College, visit

–Jeri S. Kornegay is director of Media and Public Relations at Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren-related school in North Manchester, Ind.


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