Used Grease to Power Shuttles

Biodiesel@MIT in Top 10 For mtvU, GE Ecomagination Challenge

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: In the Friday, Feb. 23 article “Used Grease to Power Shuttles,” Matthew R. Zedler ’07 should have been identified as a Tech Campus Life staff writer. In the Feb. 23 article “Used Grease to Power Shuttles,” the statement that the University of New Hampshire biodiesel program failed to meet safety standards was incorrect. Actually, the UNH program has not failed any standards. In addition, because of an editing error, it appeared that Amanda C. Graham said that same statement. In fact, Graham was never interviewed and is not “helping Biodiesel@MIT meet safety standards …” This erroneous information was obtained from another source.

Imagine the oil from French fries being converted into the fuel that feeds an MIT SafeRide shuttle. Biodiesel@MIT proposes to do just that: convert MIT’s abundant supply of used vegetable oil (UVO) into processed biodiesel for campus transportation.

The seminar-inspired brainchild of Joseph Roy-Mayhew ’08, Biodiesel@MIT has gained national acclaim through an mtvU and General Electric energy contest to make college campuses “greener.” The student group hopes to begin implementation in April, as long as they acquire funding.

Potential biodiesel converts include the new Tech Shuttle and Northwest Shuttle, which together use 11,000 gallons of fuel per year as reported in Biodiesel@MIT’s proposal to mtvU and sponsors.

In their proposal, Biodiesel@MIT claims that biodiesel produces 68 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based diesel and eliminates sulfur dioxide emissions. Nitrogen oxide emissions, however, increase by 4 percent. The net result is a greener, cleaner, more environmentally-friendly fuel to add to the nation’s alternative energy regimen. Although biodiesel fuel has been implemented elsewhere in the nation, Zedler said that MIT’s group has a unique take compared to other colleges: using solar panels to power the bioprocessor that will convert UVO into fuel.

The project has a four-year payback period to cover the initial investment, and when fully implemented, “switching to biodiesel would save MIT $1 per gallon of diesel,” Roy-Mayhew said.

A Course X-B major, Roy-Mayhew participated in the Independent Activities Period seminar Climate in Cambridge in 2006 (11.180). With fellow MIT student Elizabeth R. Ricker ’07 and two Wellesley students, Roy-Mayhew’s project involved finding a way to recycle UVO. “I decided to push the project forward through a UROP, supported by the Energy Programs Office and the Lab for Energy and Environment,” Roy-Mayhew said.

Matthew R. Zedler ’07, former Cambridge-MIT Exchange and Course II student, became interested in biodiesel after seeing its implementation in England. Zedler and Roy-Mayhew joined together in Fall 2006 and gained a following that is still on the rise from recent publicity.

Katrina M. Ellison ’10, who helps to write proposals for Biodiesel@MIT and works with the media, “heard about the project through the spams to the dorm lists.” “I was always interested in alternative energy, and I wanted to get involved as a freshman by actually doing something,” Ellison said. As a freshman, Ellison said she is a learning a lot about the technical aspects of alternative energy and how to transform an idea into a business model.

Biodiesel@MIT is currently made up of undergraduates and graduates from Course II, X, and XV.

On a national level, Biodiesel@MIT has made the top 10 in mtvU and General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge.

“We saw the posters and thought it would be a good idea and an opportunity to push the project forward and have a deadline,” Zedler said. The contest challenges students “to develop new, creative ways to green their campus,” according to the Ecomagination Web site, and received over 100 entries. More information about the contest, as well as videos for each of the top 10 college teams, is available at

If the MIT team takes the $25,000 grand prize, it would help fund their plan’s implementation and add the solar panels necessary for the bioprocessor. Additionally, Angels & Airwaves (Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge’s band) would play an Earth Day concert at MIT in April. Other top 10 colleges are pursuing green projects like composting, reducing water consumption and waste produced, developing bicycle-charged batteries, and adding “greenroofs” to school buildings.

Beyond the mtvU contest, Biodiesel@MIT plans to come into fruition as a student corporation.

“[MIT’s Environment, Health and Safety Office] will train the student operators we hire,” Zedler said. “The funding for the operators will come from the $1.10 per gallon normally charged to campus vendors to remove UVO. Students will also operate the transporting vehicles. Those have the possibility of being biodiesel-fueled as well.”

Amanda C. Graham, student administrator for the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, said she is helping Biodiesel@MIT meet safety standards that similar biodiesel programs, such as one at the University of New Hampshire, have failed to meet.

Besides fueling Tech and Northwest Shuttles, there is also the possibility of adding diesel-powered engines to Grounds Services vehicles and to a new fleet of multi-purpose MIT shuttles that will replace the existing SafeRide fleet due for release in the summer. It doesn’t stop there; at an even higher level, cogenerator plant boilers are another biodiesel-powered possibility, according to Biodiesel@MIT’s proposal.

“”The Biodiesel@MIT group has taken student engagement in campus sustainability initiatives to new heights,” said Steven Lanou, deputy director for the Sustainability Program in MIT’’s Environmental Programs Office. “”They have tackled a complex problem and really delved into not only the technical challenges, but also the institutional obstacles for getting a project like this done.”

Campus Dining, the Student Center retailers, University Park Hotel, Theta Delta Chi, and some on-campus living groups are currently interested in working with Biodiesel@MIT, as mentioned in the working proposal. Together, they produce over 5,000 gallons of UVO per year, which corresponds to 5,000 gallons of biodiesel, the proposal states.

“I think [the biodiesel program] is wonderful,” Marietta Lamarre-Buck, general manager of Campus Dining vendor Bon Appetit, said. “I’ve been pushing for it for over a year. We’ve tried contacting local sources to convert our oil into biodiesel, but with no luck.”

Used vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel by adding methanol with potassium hydroxide as the catalyst. The products are pure biodiesel (B100) and glycerin mixed with fatty acids. The B100 is then mixed with petroleum-based diesel to form B20, the preferred ratio to maintain proper engine performance. According to Zedler, B100 has a higher freezing point than petroleum-based diesel which necessitates blending the two.

“The biodiesel process is straightforward enough that it can be used in teaching introductory chemistry and organic chemistry classes,” Zedler said.

But naturally this reaction requires a biodiesel processor, with a $15,000 price tag set forth in the proposal. Even though a student-built processor would be much cheaper, it would need to meet the standards of the American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials. Instead, MBP Bioenergy, Inc. will supply the processor and chemicals. Solar panels to run the processor and make the project “greener” would cost another $13-14,000, but state rebates for using solar power would bring the proposal’s figure

closer to $8,000, the proposal states.

Biodiesel@MIT is seeking funding from corporate sources through the MIT Institute Initiative for the initial start-up costs, according to Zedler. “Once the project receives financial backing, getting facilities should be easier,” Zedler said. They are currently exploring space options for the processor, mixer, and diesel storage.

Although the glycerin is deemed safe enough by EHS for drain disposal, “We will probably store it in drums and pay for removal since it is the least contentious solution,” Zedler said. “Or it provides an opportunity for students to start a small soap-making project,” he added.

Biodiesel@MIT is collaborating with the Environmental Programs Office, Facilities, Parking and Transportation, EHS, LEE, and Campus Dining.

Voting on the proposals is slated to end March 2. The mtvU and GE judges will make the final decision in late March, according to their Web site. Voting opened on Jan. 21. To vote, visit