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Building a biofuel plant, building community

Biofuel plant in Keck lab. By Stephen Salpukas.

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 particle board 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.

A Sharpe Community Scholars project of the class of 2011, the fuel plant will process waste cooking oil into usable biodiesel with an estimated octane content similar to that of regular diesel.

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 Sharpe Community Scholars first envisioned the biofuel plant as a community-building project.

The Sharpe Community Scholars program engages first year students in civic engagement and community outreach with year-long service projects, designed and implemented by the students as part of a 4-credit service learning seminar. By using waste cooking oil from a local restaurant in their biodiesel plant, this year's environmental seminar aimed their project at actively involving community businesses and local organizations in an environmental exchange.

"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?"

Two Williamsburg community members donated the biofuel processing equipment. One is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which is in the process of “greening the house,” and a large share of the processed biodiesel is earmarked for the church's furnace, newly converted to work on biodiesel. The waste cooking oil is being donated and delivered by the Aberdeen Barn, a local restaurant. Like other restaurants, the Aberdeen Barn produces of large amounts of waste oil every week, normally paying to dispose of the oil each week.

By partnering with Williamsburg community members, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the local restaurant, the Sharpe Scholars hope to create ties between the community and the college, connecting people in an atypical way. The biofuel plant is a unique project, venturing into both environmentalism and beneficial business practices for all parties involved.

Although the project took shape during the fall semester, the Sharpe Scholars built the actual fuel plant equipment in January, and just begin testing around the last week of March. The students allowed the oil to run through the water heater, slowing heating the oil before allowing it to settle and separate in the holding tank, a process that took 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% biodiesel, and around 15% of waste product and glycerin byproduct.

The majority of the biodiesel will be given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Williamsburg, but some will also be used in campus facilities management vehicles, already being run on purchased biodiesel. 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, raising the issue of the process’s byproducts as well as the use of 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.”