KU team to test biodiesel

From left, Llya Tabakh, Kansas University research associate, and Susan Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, look over KU's biofuel setup on West Campus. As more people are trying to go green, a group at KU is ready to test its biofuel made for less than per gallon, with leftover cooking oil and methanol combined with lye.

Susan Williams isn’t exactly John D. Rockefeller, but she does hope to exploit what she sees as an opportunity-filled market for alternative fuels.

With her raw materials virtually cost-free – used cooking oil from campus dining facilities, leftover methanol from chemistry researchers and potassium hydroxide (lye) from the hardware store – the associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and her colleagues can brew up biodiesel for less than $1 a gallon.

And with their biggest customer poised to start burning the fuel, Williams’ team is looking beyond Mount Oread and into a market that could use some alternatives to Middle Eastern crude.

“It can make a huge difference,” she said. “People don’t really have a lot of confidence right now in biofuels, because they’re really not familiar with them. The more we can do to educate people and help them understand the impact they can have, it’s a good thing.”

The project is gaining attention outside Lawrence, among regulators, academics and even fuel marketers themselves. All are angling to find reliable, consistent data that can indicate which alternative fuels might offer the best economic value, mechanical efficiency and environmental benefits.

The KU project aims to do all three, starting with 700 gallons of “B100” – that’s 100 percent biodiesel – fuel created so far in Burt Hall on KU’s main campus.

Now that making the fuel itself has been accomplished, Williams and other team members are preparing to get it into some test vehicles, starting with a lawnmower or two owned and operated by Facilities and Operations at KU.

The goal: Within a year or two, have every single one of KU’s diesel-burning vehicles and pieces of equipment – from KU on Wheels buses to lawnmowers, tractors and anything else – running on a B20 blend of fuel (20 percent biodiesel), rather than the current B5 (5 percent biodiesel).

Economics, environment

Williams figures the goal can be accomplished with relative ease and little expense using the aforementioned raw materials.

Throw in volunteer labor from interested students, plus a handful of workers whose wages are financed through a grant, and Williams figures that the academic exercise will go well beyond establishing benchmarks and performance standards that will be useful for academics and industry advocates alike.

The fuel will be able to save the campus real money, she said, while producing real environmental benefits. Performance data from the equipment one day will be able to help consumers and companies to make informed decisions about what options make the most sense, and why.

Williams is confident the studies will map out a clear path toward environmental sustainability.

“It’s a trade-off,” she said. “We need to stop solely thinking about our own cars, and starting thinking about what you gain in cleaner skies, better farms, better communities and everything else.”

‘Revolution’ is here

Tom Palace, executive director of the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association of Kansas, said that such research already had come a long way toward helping his industry, and that he was looking forward to more.

Just as Scott Zaremba already has set a high standard for alternative fuels by opening his Zarco 66 Earth Friendly Fuels station at Ninth and Iowa streets, he said, all work toward identifying and promoting fuels remains worthwhile.

Besides, all the momentum building behind so-called “green” fuels has leaders of his organization only half joking that the group soon could be known as the Energy Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

“We want to be behind anything that people will buy,” said Palace, whose organization represents 1,200 fuel retailers in Kansas.

Anyone who questions the future of alternative fuels might want to consider this: Since 2000, General Motors alone has put some 4 million vehicles on the road capable of burning flex-fuels such as E85, a blend of gasoline that is 85 percent ethanol.

“We’re at another revolution in transportation,” said Donna McLallen, a GM spokeswoman, who noted that early automobiles ran on grain-based fuels before petroleum-based gasoline won out.

The revolution is so new, in fact, that plenty of barriers remain in place to the use of some fuels. Even KU’s own much-researched fuel still awaits clearance for use in the campus vehicle fleet, as attorneys review licensing requirements, tax implications, environmental documents and other matters to ensure that all necessary rules are being followed.

Ilya Tabakh, research associate for KU’s Transportation Research Institute, said that he was looking forward to the B100 fuel blending in with traditional diesel on campus, then accelerating efforts to mass-produce such fuel on a larger scale elsewhere.

“The university is a good representation for a small community,” said Tabakh, who serves as associate director of KU’s biodiesel initiative. “A small community could pick up what we’re doing here, and model it in their own backyard and make it work for them.”