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The Collaboratory Helps Fuel Pennsylvania’s Future

The 93rd Pennsylvania Farm Show hosts a harvest of renewable energy, including Messiah’s biodiesel project.

Biodiesel DisplayThe Alternative Energy Harvest area of the Pennsylvania Farm Show is a relatively recent addition to the country’s largest indoor agricultural display event. Here, at one end of the large Exposition Hall, students and staff from Messiah College’s Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research (the Collaboratory) set up a display of its small-scale biodiesel production process. While this is the first time that the Collaboratory has brought its biodiesel production trailer to the Farm Show, the team has been working over the last five years to perfect a process for converting waste vegetable oil from Messiah’s dining facilities into biodiesel fuel for use in campus vehicles and as a substitute for petroleum heating oils.

A guided peek inside the trailer reveals that the basic process of creating biodiesel involves heating waste vegetable oil and the addition of methanol and either sodium or potassium hydroxide. A glycerol byproduct is allowed to settle out of the process and the resulting biodiesel is washed and filtered. Methanol is recovered from the glycerol byproduct to produce glycerin (glycerin can be used in soap and as a composting agent). The batch processor that the Collaboratory had on-hand at the Farm Show can produce 45 gallons of usable fuel at a time. In most cases, no modifications to diesel engines or fuel burners are necessary to use the biodiesel.

As can be gleaned from its name, a primary component of the Collaboratory’s mission is partnering with organizations locally and world-wide to develop solutions which benefit disadvantaged people and care for the earth. Mike Zummo, an ‘06 Messiah College engineering graduate who manages the biodiesel project, explains, “We want to connect with members of the community who are interested in small scale [biodiesel] production to answer their questions as well as network with other local small scale producers.” Since Pennsylvania’s number one business is agriculture, the new frontier of growing and producing biofuels is no “small potatoes” for the farmers, businesses, and other partnering organizations within the Commonwealth. Exhibiting at the Farm Show allows students to connect with and help educate some of the Pennsylvanians that will benefit. Zummo says, “Participation in this project allows students to gain hands-on experience and apply the theories and principles learned in the classroom to a practical and socially relevant goal.”
Following its initial success, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the Collaboratory a grant for nearly $500,000 last fall for further research and refining of the production process in efforts to meet the ASTM D 6751 Biodiesel specification while standardizing the process and equipment design. The ASTM certification insures that the biodiesel meets certain established quality standards and that it can also be safely used in place of or blended with petroleum-based diesel fuel.
Production EquipmentSo, what special powers can biodiesel boast of that petro-based diesel fuel can’t? Well, it’s non-toxic and renewable, and it utilizes an organic product that was previously disposed of as waste. It also produces less carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and particulate emissions than petro-based diesel. And, the production process has a positive net energy balance, which means, as Zummo points out, “that more energy is contained in the biodiesel produced than was required to produce the fuel.” Not all alternative fuels can say that.
Rudolf Diesel would be proud of this turn of events with his legacy; his first engine operated on peanut oil and he continued to use and research biofuels until his death in 1913. If he were here today, he might even ask that the Collaboratory’s trailer of biodiesel production equipment remain even after the rest of the Farm Show had packed up and left town—after all, the Pennsylvania Auto & Boat Show might just need a few gallons when they roll into the Exhibition Hall next week!

To Learn More:

Collaboratory Biodiesel Research Project Pamphlet (PDF)

Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research
U.S. Department of Energy Biodiesel Website

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