Midshipmen learn value of biodiesel

Students in academy chemistry class make fuel from cooking oil

October 15, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

The chemistry lab at the Naval Academy smelled faintly like a fast-food restaurant or a doughnut shop. But the thick, purplish liquid swirling in the flask was nothing a midshipman would want drizzled on his dinner plate.

Midshipmen had picked out all the bread crumbs and crusts from the used vegetable oil in King Hall, and Chad Theriault, 20, was adding, drip by drip, a potassium hydroxide solution, waiting for the syrupy goo to turn pink.

Theriault, a sophomore, tinkered with the solution, eyeing the flask through his safety goggles and pouring in more and more potassium hydroxide until it changed color. In a few minutes, voila: biodiesel.

Last week, he and 60 other midshipmen made biodiesel that mechanical engineering majors will test with diesel engines that they made in class.

It was surprisingly simple and cheap, Theriault said, to produce the biodegradable fuel. If made right, it can be substituted for regularly refined diesel in a Volkswagen, a school bus or in a Navy vehicle.

"I never knew it was so important as far as the Navy is concerned," said Theriault, a native of Concord, N.H. "We always get on our teacher about not getting to do explosive stuff, but this is a pretty exciting thing to learn."

The U.S. military is one of the largest users of biodiesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Early last year, the Navy - the largest diesel fuel user in the world - required the use of biodiesel in all nontactical diesel vehicles at bases where it is widely available.

In 2003, a Ventura County, Calif. naval base began recycling cooking oil and turning it into biodiesel, with the goal of expending 20,000 gallons a year.

Navy engineers gushed at the time about how easy it would be to manufacture - even during a deployment - because so much vegetable oil is sent overseas to cook sailors' food.

Biodiesel, which can be made from vegetable oils or animal fats, is often blended with regular diesel to make "B20," which is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel and can be used in any diesel engine without modifications.

More than 850 retail filling stations in the United States and 600 major commercial fleets use biodiesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board's Web site.

The idea for the lab assignment came to Clare Gutteridge, a chemistry professor at the academy, when she saw a friend make biodiesel at home for his Volkswagen Jetta.

Her friend has filled the tank of his Jetta exclusively with the fuel during the past year, she says, and generally can save up to $1 a gallon making it himself. A gallon at the pump cost $3.05 in August, the most recent price available from the national Energy Information Administration.

It does smell like burned oil at times, she said.

Jeremy Mandia, 23, said he planned to use what he learned in the class, perhaps teaming up with an academy mechanical engineering major, to help a friend in upstate New York manufacture biodiesel for his apple farm.

A New Paltz, N.Y. native, the chemistry major said the farm spends $50,000 to $60,000 on diesel fuel each season. In addition to being potentially cheaper, there is another benefit of the fuel. Glycerol, a byproduct of home-manufactured biodiesel, can be used as fertilizer.

The main challenge, he said, will be figuring out how to convert the process for making two liters of biodiesel into one that will produce 200 or 300 gallons.

"I like my major, even though it's one of the harder majors, because we can do cool stuff like this," he said. "Earlier in the year, we learned how to refine oil, so there are a lot of real-world applications like that, unlike political science."

Antoinette Carter, 19, said she thought it was "pretty awesome" when she read the lab assignment, and she has joked now and again with academy classmates about apocalyptic situations in which she would know how to survive because she can make biodiesel.

"I love being able to see chemicals and kind of take them apart, to know what they're made of," she said. "And now, if the world runs out of oil, I'll know how to make my own."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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