In a corner of the Keck Environmental Field Laboratory sit an old water heater, a plastic holding tank and a few pumps, set up in a purple-painted particleboard frame with the air of an eighth grade science project.
In a terrarium a few feet away, tiny turtles sun themselves and swim, either unaware or unconcerned that they are neighbors to William and Mary's first biodiesel fuel plant.
The fuel plant will process waste cooking oil into usable biodiesel, with an octane content that the project sponsor says should be similar to regular diesel. Although the fuel plant is still in experimental stages, participants expect their recycled french-fry oil to power College vehicles and warm a Williamsburg church.
Inspired by the projects of the Backporch Energy Initiative, a non-profit environmental organization recently started by William and Mary graduates, a seminar group of College freshmen decided to operate the biofuel plant as a community-building project.
A Sharpe Scholar program
The students are all Sharpe Community Scholars, members of a program that engages first-year William and Mary students in civic engagement and community outreach. Sharpe Scholars conduct year-long service projects, designed and implemented by the students as part of a for-credit service learning seminar.
"It's not just the environmental aspect that's important," said Dennis Taylor, faculty sponsor of the project and professor at William and Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
"The question is, how do you establish relationships in a community?" By using waste cooking oil from a local restaurant in their biodiesel plant, Taylor said this year's environmental seminar aimed its project at actively involving community businesses and local organizations in an environmental exchange.
A member of the congregation of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist Church donated much of the equipment to the project. In return, the church will receive a large share of the processed biodiesel to be used as heating oil. The waste cooking oil is being donated and delivered by the Aberdeen Barn, a local Williamsburg restaurant. Like many other restaurants, the Aberdeen Barn produces large amounts of waste oil every week, and normally pays to dispose of the oil, Taylor said.
Although the project took shape during the fall semester, the Sharpe Scholars built the actual fuel plant equipment in January, and just began testing around the last week of March. The students run the oil through the water heater, slowly heating the oil, before allowing it to settle and separate in the holding tank. The process takes around six hours to complete.
After bubbling water through the holding tank to clean out impurities, the biodiesel is siphoned out, and the process is ready to begin again. Taylor estimates that a single run processes around 35 gallons of waste cooking oil, producing 85 percent biodiesel, with around 15 percent waste product and glycerin byproduct.
Warming the church
While the majority of the biodiesel will be given to the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist Church, some will also be used in campus transportation. The Sharpe Scholars are still working on finding a use or a safe disposal for the glycerin and waste product.
"We still have to work out whether the benefits of this project outweigh the costs," said Taylor. He explained the group will have to examine how to dispose of the process's byproducts and factor in the cost of the electricity to produce the biodiesel.
"It's still in its experimental stages, so we just don't know," he added. "We have to look at the big picture."