For Lycoming College senior Kyle Ruhl, the smell of French fries has taken on a whole new meaning.
Ruhl, a chemistry major, has spent much of his senior year in a shed on Willow Street, surrounded by vats of used fryer oil from the campus cafeteria. With help from Grounds and General Labor Supervisor John Shaffer, Ruhl has transformed the warehouse into a biodiesel production facility, turning vegetable oil into fuel for on-campus maintenance vehicles.
The college hosted an open house for the facility Thursday, and several campus leaders were in attendance.
Kyle Ruhl, a Lycoming College senior, shows guests how used vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel fuel during an open house Thursday.
Kyle Ruhl, a Lycoming College senior, explains the difference between the thick, dark, vegetable oil used in food preparation and the clear liquid in the cylinder he is holding, which is used as fuel.
During the process of making biodiesel from used vegetable oil, water is used to help separate the oil from the waste products. Lycoming College student Kyle Ruhl explains that the oil floats to the top while the water and waste sinks to the bottom of the tank.
"This is clearly a case where we're doing better, as an institution, by doing good," said Dr. Neil Boyd, business administration professor and co-chair of the university sustainability committee.
Ruhl already had extensive experience with biodiesel production before he came to Lycoming College.
"The whole biodiesel thing started for me (during my) junior year of high school," he said.
As he developed an interest in the use of biodiesel for fuel, he began his senior project: building a small-scale production facility at home with help from his
dad. They used leftover vegetable oil from his high school and local restaurants, which was converted into fuel.
Ruhl began building the college's facility over winter break 2009.
The process begins with the used fryer oil, which is heated and filtered in a large tank in order to remove water and any excess food particles. The 45 gallons of oil then are added to the reactor.
Ruhl said the raw feed stock oil is too thick to be used as fuel, so at this stage he adds methanol and sodium hydroxide to alter the oil's chemical structure. After letting the mixture settle, Ruhl is able to separate out the glycerine byproduct from the crude fuel.
Shaffer said the university may use the glycerine to make soap, which could be used around campus or sold.
"You can also compost it," he said.
Ruhl also removes the methanol from the crude fuel by boiling the mixture. The methanol can be used again for the next batch of fuel.
Next comes the washing stage. Ruhl adds water to the tank to clean the fuel. While he said 20 to 30 gallons of water are used per batch of oil, he hopes the university eventually can move to an ion exchange washing process, which uses much less water.
Finally, Ruhl allows the fuel to settle and dry, then it is ready to power the university's maintenance vehicles.
After a year of collecting the cafeteria's used oil, the university has stockpiled 700 gallons. The cost to produce a gallon of biodiesel at the university production facility is about $1.25. Ruhl said that is less expensive than the biodiesel at other sites because the vegetable oil is free.
In addition to significant cost savings, Ruhl said biodiesel has many advantages over diesel fuel. It is nontoxic, it breaks down naturally and is carbon-neutral.
Ruhl said any vegetable or animal-based oils may be used in the process - he's even tried converting pig lard into fuel.
"It's all the same internal structure," he said.
Ruhl said the system converts 45 gallons of vegetable oil into 43 gallons of biodiesel, and that may be used by itself or mixed with diesel. Because biodiesel tends to thicken in the winter, Ruhl usually mixes it with diesel to keep it from turning into a gel.
"It actually blends in any percentage of a mixture," he said.
Ruhl plans to study chemistry in graduate school next year and hopes to recruit some students to take over the biodiesel production facility after he's gone.
Boyd said the biodiesel production is just one of several "green" initiatives at Lycoming College, and many of the college's leaders are eager to support those efforts.
"There is a system of support for sustainability initiatives on our campus," he said.