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Sci Tech    H3'ed 4/15/11

Loyola's Biodiesel Lab Fuels Campus Shuttles and Visions of Energy Independence

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My guest today is Zach Waickman, Biodiesel Lab Manager for the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Welcome to OpEdNews, Zach.  Recently, a friend gave me a bottle of your lavender BioSoap. What's the story behind and beyond that great smell?

photo credit: Mark Beane
Hi, Joan. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to hear that you enjoy the smell of our BioSoap. We'll see if that holds true once you know how we make it. One of our goals in the Biodiesel Program is to be a waste-free facility. Ironically, we start with a waste product, used cooking oil from campus cafeterias and local restaurants. This oil is then chemically split in a simple process that anybody can do with the proper information and some training. The resulting products are biodiesel, a renewable replacement for petroleum diesel fuel, and glycerin. The biodiesel is used in shuttle buses that help connect two of Loyola's Chicago campuses. The glycerin is then used to make BioSoap. Glycerin is naturally produced in the soap making process and adds great grease-cutting and moisturing properties to the soap.

Unfortunately, a lot of soap makers then extract the glycerin from the soap before it's packaged because glycerin is valuable on the open market. It is used as a natural food sweetener, heart medication, and has hundreds of other applications. Loyola's BioSoap is made from natural ingredients and actually has extra glycerin added in. This gives us a high quality, universal soap. It can be used on hands, in the shower, in the kitchen, on floors, or to clean your car. Ultimately, we hope to offset the use of other liquid soaps and some chemical cleaners at Loyola with our BioSoap. This project really demonstrates how we approach environmental sustainability. We need to reduce the number of inputs needed on campus, reduce the amount of waste that leaves campus, and operate as efficiently as possible. Utilizing waste cooking oil to produce biodiesel and soap for use on campus is a great working demonstration on how individuals, businesses, and government can approach sustainability while being mindful of economic, social, political, and environmental impacts of decisions.

I think the first time I heard of biodiesel was in connection with country singing icon Willie Nelson. Am I misremembering? Did you get your inspiration from him? Did he get it from you?

Willie Nelson's BioWillie (his brand of biodiesel) is actually a lot of people's first exposure to biodiesel. He has been a great early advocate for its use. However, I learned about Willie Nelson's efforts after I had been working on biodiesel projects for about six months. I think what he is doing is wonderful and we need more of it.

Agreed. Let's go back to what's happening in your lab, Zach.  According to your website, Loyola is the first school in the country licensed to produce and sell biodiesel. That's pretty impressive. Tell us more.

A lot of colleges and universities have some sort of biodiesel project on their campus. Where our program differs in in how we approach the project. Our Biodiesel Program was student-built, is primarily student-run, and is an interdisciplinary project. We don't just have chemistry students or environmental studies students in the lab. We get students from every department at the university to approach the issue of environmental sustainability in a holistic fashion. So we focus on all aspects of biodiesel from chemistry and politics, to education and marketing. Part of this approach is to treat ourselves like a small business within the university so that our students understand the economics behind the project. We wanted to sell our fuel in order to financially support our lab and our outreach to local schools. The shuttle buses at Loyola were identified as the ideal destination for our biodiesel but the buses are owned and operated by an independent company, Free Enterprise. In order to sell motor fuel for use on public roads, we had to get licensed just like an oil refiner or gas station would. We have worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Service, National Biodiesel Board, and Illinois Department of Revenue to get registered and licensed as a producer and supplier of motor fuel, specifically 100% biodiesel. We were the first school in the US to go through this process which also allows us to participate in the Renewable Fuel Standard program through the US EPA that tracks renewable fuel production in the US. Another advantage of going through this process is that we can help other schools, non-profits, businesses, and individuals navigate the regulatory maze to produce and use biodiesel legally themselves. The students in our continuing education classes come out fully prepared to design and build processing equipment; process biodiesel and its co-products; and legally use and/or sell the fuel as well.

That's fascinating! I love the holistic, interdisciplinary, pragmatic approach. According to the website, the Biodiesel Program is an outgrowth of a 2007 class, so it's also organic. Can you talk about its genesis a bit, Zach? Is the program well-subscribed? Do students actually come to Loyola because of it?

You can actually learn a lot about the beginning of our class, and the biodiesel project, through a couple short documentary pieces that students made during the course. The original musical score was composed and performed by another student in the class!

The course that started everything is called Solutions to Environmental Problems (STEP). I was actually a student in the very first STEP class (so, even the staff are former students). The idea behind the course was to take a tangible environmental problem that the university was facing and hand it over to a group of students to solve. We bring in professors and guests from every imaginable discipline (department) to teach about the chosen problem from their disciplinary perspective. Our first topic was alternative energy, more specifically biodiesel. So we got lectures on the science behind it, the environmental implications, political support, business aspects, marketing, educational opportunities...(the list goes on). These lectures serve to create mini-experts out of the students in the class who also come from all over the university. Then with this knowledge in hand the students propose projects that will help to advance the implementation and awareness of the project at Loyola. It's like choose your own adventure for a grade. Some examples of projects that first semester are biodiesel production, documentary, website, writing a pro-biofuels bill for Illinois, high school education outreach, and emissions testing on vehicles using biodiesel. The student project build semester to semester (and a lot of students continue their projects through internships) until they are strong enough to step outside of STEP and form a program, i.e. the Biodiesel Program. The program can continue the implementation of the project on campus and in Chicago while the class is freed to focus on another topic. We are currently offering STEP: Food Systems and next Fall we will switch to STEP: Water.

Boy, I'd love to be a Loyola college student about now! Let's talk about my bottle of soap. "Converting waste into products" is not just a catchy slogan. Tell us how this product fits the bill.

Our soap is a product of our goals to be a zero waste facility and to utilize university waste to create usable products for campus. When we convert waste cooking oil into biodiesel we get a co-product of glycerin. Glycerin has a lot of grease-cutting and moisturizing properties that are ideal for cleaning products. Our students came up with a formula and process to make a liquid hand soap from waste cooking oil and glycerin that we both use on campus (in bathrooms) and sell on campus (university bookstore and convenience stores). We package our soap, BioSoap, in recycled plastic containers with biodegradable labels so as to make a minimal impact on the environment. The soap is packaged and sold as a hand soap but it is actually a universal soap. We use it to clean glass, floors, hair, cars, basically you name it and we can clean it with BioSoap.

from website

My BioSoap is actually in a glass bottle that is, according to the label, 40% recycled glass.  Are other schools copying your program? What do you see happening in the future?

Yes, the glass bottles are also made of some recycled glass. They should also have an information tag on them made our of elephant poo-poo paper.

Over the past three years, we have  assisted more than 15 colleges across the US start exploring biodiesel projects. Everyone has a slightly different approach, but you can always learn from the successes and mistakes of others. A group at Western Michigan University was kind enough to host the original Loyola biodiesel group so that we could learn the basics of implementing a college biodiesel project. We're trying to do the same for others. There is a group in Kentucky working to copy our high school outreach across their state. Kentucky Biofuels for Schools has been working with us to get mini biodiesel processors and appropriate curricula into Kentucky schools for next year. I will be traveling there this summer to do a professional development workshop to help launch the program there.

I love the cross-pollination going on at Loyola and between you and other schools.  Anything you'd like to add, Zach? And yes, I'm so glad the recycled paper is sanitized first.

I think we've covered everything. The only thing that I would like to add is that in order for environmental sustainability to move forward we have to realize that it is an issue that both affects and can benefit everyone. We need to get beyond the environmental versus business model. We are a product of and rely on the world around us. If we want sustainable economic, political, and social growth then we need to take care of the environment that those things operate in. The most important thing we can do to move in that direction is to educate ourselves, our children, and our elected officials. The though choices that support environmental sustainability may not the best choices for anybody, but they are the best choices for everybody.

I like that, Zach. It may be serendipity but I'm reading No Impact Man at this very moment. It dovetails well with having us become more mindful in the choices we make that will support environmental sustainability. Thanks for talking with me. Good luck with this!

Thank you, Joan. I'm looking forward to reading your article. Please don't hesitate to ask any follow-up questions you have in the future. Take care!

Thanks to Jessica for the BioSoap gift that led to this story!

Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy at Loyola University Chicago

PooPooPaper -"100% recycled and odorless products made from poo!"

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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