Illinois Biodiesel Initiative: From French Fries to Fuel for Illinois Fleet!

Illinois Biodiesel Initiative: From French Fries to Fuel for Illinois Fleet!

Did you know that your discarded vegetable oil assumes a second life when it leaves your plate? The Illinois Biodiesel Initiative (IBI) is one of the hidden gems of campus sustainability at the University of Illinois. Behind the scenes at Ikenberry Dining Hall, IBI turns waste vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel — a zero-emissions source of energy for the university.

Wide shot of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab at Illinois, taken from the outside.

The Illinois Biodiesel Initiative resides in the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab (IBRL) located on south campus. Picture above: ‘Block I’-shaped soap produced by IBI.

This totally student-run Registered Student Organization (RSO) was founded in 2006, evolving from an Engineers Without Borders project with funding from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC). The group has moved its headquarters a few times since its inception and is currently settled in the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL). Parker Brand, President of IBI, described the IBRL’s full-scale pilot plant facility as “the only place on campus where we can safely do what we do.”

So, what do they do?

IBI is composed of three primary groups: The Production Team, the Soap Team, and the Quality Control Team. Each group has unique responsibilities.

IBI members recover the waste vegetable oil, left over from fried food like french fries, from the dining hall. They allow it to settle, then filter out food particles and other solids in the oil. The pure oil is pumped into a 50-gallon reactor along with methanol, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide. Then, the biodiesel recipe calls for two days of mixing at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), facilitating a chemical reaction. After the mixture settles, two products emerge: a lightweight layer of biodiesel; which floats on top of a denser layer of glycerin.

The biodiesel layer is pumped through a filter and a resin column, which absorbs and neutralizes the contaminants. Instead of disposing of toxic wastewater — which is not environmentally or economically ideal — the resin can be thrown out as non-hazardous solid waste. This step takes about two days. After standards testing by the Quality Control Team, the final product, contaminant-free biodiesel, is gifted to Facilities & Services (F&S) to fuel campus vehicles.

In addition to making fuel, IBI members are also craftspeople of soap. The dense glycerin layer is pulled from the bottom of the reactor and mixed with steric acid, sodium hydroxide, and any desired colors and fragrances. This soap has been sold as fundraising means in the past, and the group hopes to send the soap to University Dining in the future.

The Facilities & Service (F&S) fleet is partially fueled by IBI’s biodiesel, reducing campus’s carbon footprint. Photo credit: University of Illinois Facilities & Services.

Though IBI operations are currently on hold due to COVID-19 safety precautions, big plans are in place to make oil collection and recycling a more viable option across campus. The group hopes to upgrade its 50-gallon processor to a 500-gallon processor, and the new Illinois Street Residence (ISR) Hall will feature oil-collecting infrastructure in the dining hall: pipes that lead from the fryers to a collection tank. With more processing capacity and the new ISR collection station, IBI hopes to produce 10 times as much fuel as it did previously.

A member of the Illinois Biodiesel Initiative team stands next to a 50-gallon reactor, hugging it to show its size.

To create biodiesel, pure oil is pumped into a 50-gallon reactor (pictured) along with methanol, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide.

Increased biofuel production can have great implications for campus sustainability, helping to achieve Objective 3.1 of the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). This objective, contained in the Transportation Chapter, states that by FY24, the university must replace 80% of the campus fleet with more sustainable options like optimized vehicles and biofuels.

“All of the fuel we make is carbon neutral because it’s plant-based. So, anything we make for F&S is a reduction in carbon emissions. Biodiesel also helps reduce sulfur emissions, which can cause things like acid rain,” Brand said.

IBI also focuses heavily on education. Because the RSO is student-run, everyone gets hands-on experience with a “real, tangible, sustainable project.”

“We teach students how to be more sustainable with this biodiesel — to go into the sustainability field whether that’s at the university or further in their career,” Brand said. “We also help educate the campus community on alternate fuel sources, whether that’s biodiesel or something else. We want to give people a little more experience, a little more awareness about the options when it comes to fuels — because it’s not all oil, it’s not all from the ground.”

Due to COVID-19 precautions, IBI is not currently operating; however, the board is looking into virtual education opportunities. And members are looking forward to continuing the journey toward zero emissions.

— Story by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring