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Researchers put cooking oil to use for transportation

June 17, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Cooking oil--for years it's helped provide fuel for drivers in the form of fast-food staples like French fries. Now, it's fueling the vehicles they drive.

Three Western Michigan University chemistry researchers have launched an alternative fuel project that turns cooking oil from WMU residence halls and local restaurants into fuel for vehicles. They'd like to see it spark an economic turnaround that could help area farmers and the environment as well as wean the United States from its dependence on foreign oil.

The effort started in January with what the trio calls mid-winter "dumpster diving" to retrieve used oil from WMU food service kitchens to use in their experiments. By late April, the project had progressed to the point where they were showing their work off to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton and proposing biodiesel use as a way to meet fuel demands, lessen the impact of fuel use on the environment and stimulating economic growth.

"With fuel cell technology still years from mass use and with the relatively small penetration of hybrid vehicles into the transportation fleet, biodiesel offers an immediate mechanism for accomplishing those goals," says Dr. Steven B. Bertman, associate professor of chemistry. Since February, Bertman, has powered his personal vehicle--a Volkswagen Jetta diesel--with the output from the campus research project.

Bertman and chemistry department colleagues Dr. Marc W. Perkovic, associate professor, and Dr. Brian P. Buffin, assistant professor, have been producing biodiesel in a 40-gallon reactor in WMU's McCracken Hall. Starting with oil from campus food services and a few small restaurants, they have started what they believe is the only Kalamazoo-area source for biodiesel, although such fuel can be purchased elsewhere in the state.

Biodiesel is produced by mixing vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol to form fatty esters and glycerol. The fatty esters that result can be used as is, or they can be blended with petroleum diesel at any ratio. Biodiesel can be used to replace petroleum-based diesel fuel in standard diesel engines or for home heating oil with no modifications necessary.

"Biodiesel is also clean burning and offers significant improvement in auto emissions," Bertman says. The fuel is also an excellent lubricant, which improves engine longevity, and it's biodegradable and nontoxic.

A move to biodiesel would also help preserve existing petroleum reserves so that they could be used for the many nonfuel uses on which society depends, Perkovic points out.

"Petroleum is too valuable to burn," he says. "The mixture of complex organic chemicals that we now use for fuel, plastics, pharmaceuticals, etc., would be almost impossible to synthesize on an industrial scale. By reducing or eliminating the petroleum-based fuel use, we can extend that finite resource."

One of the biggest roadblocks to widespread biodiesel use in the United States, the trio points out, is the lingering public perception that cars with diesel engines are dirty. That perception is a holdover from the 1970s, when diesel engines in domestic cars, introduced to combat an earlier energy crisis, were rushed to market. Other nations have moved past that view, and in Europe, about 40 percent of automobiles are powered by diesel engines, which are inherently more efficient than gasoline engines.

Biodiesel fuels already are available at commercial pumps in Europe, and they currently account for about 2 percent of world demand. But in many areas of the United States, such fuel is still regarded more as a home brew.

Still, the potential is there, and Bertman says even the limited supply the researchers are pulling from the University is having a beneficial impact.

"WMU usually pays someone to haul used oil away. This way it's being used productively," he says.

In the long run, the researchers hope to see the use of biodiesel spread and benefit farmers who produce corn and other oil seed crops as well as trigger a new commercialization movement in Southwest Michigan that could mean new jobs.

This summer, they are proceeding with their work, using some funding from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, to hire students to assist them in their research. They've also begun conversations with a number of local organizations to help develop a plan for the future.

For Bertman, Perkovic and Buffin, the work is a natural outgrowth of a longtime departmental focus.

"Our department has always had an environmental focus," Perkovic notes. "One of the nice things about this work is it really is about where the rubber meets the road. It has wonderful potential."

Bertman agrees. "There is arguably no more patriotic thing one can do than simultaneously create local jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum supplies and decrease the environmental impact of human activities," he says.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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