Steam hovers over a kitchen's industrial sized stove, where the aroma of freshly cooked French fries lingers. The heat projects from a large deep fryer filled with remains of potato crumbs floating in a hot, clear liquid. After the thick, yellow-tinted substance cools, it will be poured into a 30-gallon barrel and await a new job, very different from cooking potatoes.
"We turn vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel," said Prabhjot Kaur, Masters student and Illini Renewable Energy (IREnergy) Student Group program chairperson.
Kaur is in her second year masters' program studying agricultural biological engineering while she organizes speakers, social activities and programs for the Illinois Biofuel Initiative.
She is one of 50 students part of the registered student organization that transforms used vegetable oil from university dining halls into effective biodiesel used in facility trucks.
"It's more of a recycling project than anything else," said Matt Giannis, sophomore in mechanical engineering and member of IREnergy.
Giannis explained the group's main goal is to reinvent oil using local resources, and turn around and give it back to use in a new form. The group called IREnergy, or Illinois Biofuel Initiative, is celebrating its successful first year working directly with the university. Before the biofuel project, group members worked with another student group, Engineers Without Borders, to use what they learned in the classroom, and apply it to real-world issues.
"We've had a lot of good success. In one year we've accomplished a lot of goals, and have impressed a lot of people," said Kaur.
Although the group is experimenting with other products, the biodiesel project is its biggest focus.
"We're doing something practical, trying to inspire our fellow students to conserve the energy that they use. We're trying to make a change on campus," said Kaur.
Changes are already happening in four of the university's 14 residential hall kitchens. Lincoln Ave., Florida Ave., Pennsylvania
Ave. and Gregory Hall all contribute vegetable oil to the program.
"Before the students approached us, a contracted company came and picked up all of our leftover animal fat and vegetable oil," said Carol Raney, administrator of food services for university housing and dining. After the food waste was picked up, dining service employees had no idea where it went.
"Now we're able to use the biodiesel in our trucks. We're saving money and reducing emissions by using the biofuel," she said.
Raney mentioned three different university vehicles that run on about 25 percent of the biodiesel. Campus facilities and services, dining facility services and housing facility services all pump about one-fourth of the fuel along with the standard diesel that powers their trucks.
The process from deep fryers to gas tanks is meticulous and time consuming. Raney explained that before being transported anywhere, the vegetable oil must be cooled at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it's cool, the oil is poured into 30-gallon barrels stored in the kitchen. IREnergy students pick up the oil at the various residence halls twice a week.
"It normally depends on how much leftover oil we produce each week. Sometimes it's a lot more than others, it depends on what we're cooking," said Raney.
Once the students have the oil, it’s taken to the IllinoisSustainableTechnologyCenter
, where it mixes with methanol and a catalyst produced by the students, in 400-gallon tank reactors. The final product results in a biofuel that is filtered and rinsed.
"Before, we were using 50-gallon reactors, but the scales have changed. University dining has been producing a lot more oil lately, and by the end of the semester we'll be efficiently using a 400-gallon Appleseed reactor," said Giannis.
Although the group works throughout the year, it's much easier during the fall and spring.
"Our technology isn't good for the winter. If the biofuel gets up to a high gelling point, we will lose a lot of the liquid component," said Giannis.
The group has learned to overcome any of the project's obstacles together.
"Working in a group helps form ideas. We have members that are biology majors, business or computer science majors. It's helpful to have different backgrounds because we've learned to integrate these ideas to solve problems," said Kaur.
Besides problems in the lab, the students have faced some problems relating to students on campus.
"Sometimes it's hard. We're a new group, and it's hard to get people into new initiatives, not everyone wants to change their ways," said Kaur.
Freshman Laura Marks lives at Lincoln Ave.
residence hall, and didn't even know the kitchen was reusing its waste.
"It sounds like such a cool thing, I don't know why the university doesn't publicly tell us what they're doing," said Marks. She thinks that what her peers are doing is not only helping the campus now, but also helping to benefit future students. "They're really doing their part to help save the Earth," she said.
The IREnergy team sees the biofuel project as an opportunity to help save the earth on a local scale.
"Biodiesel produces less matter than diesel. It's a better quality at a reduced cost to the university. It's not just an engineering thing, it relates to everyone," said Giannis.
All students, faculty members and university employees are directly affected by the greenhouse emissions released from trucks every day, so this is a step in the right direction.
"It's just doing something good for the campus," said Kaur.
Although they’re not professionals yet, the students have learned what it's like to work in the real world.
"They're cooperative and they clearly communicate directly with us," said Raney, "It's a great experience for them to deal with the professional side of things. They're out of the classroom and in the real world."
Professionalism is a huge component in the Illinois Biofuel Initiatives project, but they are students, too.
"We recently had a club social event at Murphy's Pub. But even when we go out for a fun time, we always end up talking about new opportunities for a project," said Kaur.