School seeks sustainability with biodiesel production

by Ben Rodgers, managing editor

After a long hiatus, Jeff Wagner and the employees of the Simpson College physical plant plan to take steps to boost the college’s environmental sustainability efforts.

To decrease waste and help lower the carbon footprint of the college, Wagner soon plans to restart production of biodiesel and use it in equipment such as lawn mowers, tractors and skid loaders used to maintain the college grounds.

Where does the raw material come from to produce the biodiesel? Old cooking oil from Pfeiffer Dining Hall’s fryers.

“We already have it set up with dining services to get their old cooking oil,” Wagner, the director of grounds, said.

By using a biodiesel processor purchased by the school years ago, Wagner plans to set up shop in the old Catholic church on Iowa Street to concoct the air friendly fuel.

Wagner said the process behind producing the biodiesel is simple and safe, as long as precautions are taken.

The process is done by heating 50 gallons of cooking oil to 125 degrees in the processor. Then methanol and lye, a caustic material, is added, which produces a chemical called methoxide. The methoxide is then fed into the warm cooking oil, left over night and the final product is ready.

“On a good reaction starting with 50 gallons of oil, we will end up with 40 to 43 gallons of biodiesel,” Wagner said.

While producing biofuels for physical plant equipment has yet to start, it is nothing new to Simpson.

According to Wagner and biology professor Ryan Rehmeier, years ago a student named Kyle Liske looked into biofuels as a sustainable practice for the college while working on a project in an environmental issues class.

Liske, who was student body president at the time, offered the idea to buy a processor to start producing biodiesel.

“It was student driven and luckily we had people in campus services who thought it was a great idea and worked with the students to try to get the logistics worked out,” Rehmeier said.

After Wagner left Simpson as head of grounds, the production of biodiesel stopped. Upon his return, Wagner was enthused to start the program again.

As the physical plant plans to start up production within the next few weeks, Wagner excitedly spoke about the benefits of using the natural diesel in a number of their equipment.

Wagner said the biggest benefit the fuel has is its clean burning properties. According to Wagner, when burned, the diesel produces 85 percent less emissions than regular diesel fuel.

“You don’t see the characteristic black smoke when you start it up,” Wagner said. “If anything you see a little white smoke and that’s it.”

Wagner also spoke about the cost benefits producing biofuels can have. With the process Wagner soon plans to implement, the school will be able to produce biodiesel for 81 cents per gallon.

While Wagner said diesel has come down in price with regular gasoline, he said the cost of diesel sits near $2.50 per gallon.

“It’s a substantial savings,” Wagner said.

Wagner added, “You’re just saving so much money and we’re using a product Pfeiffer pays to get rid of.”

Another benefit Wagner and the other physical plant employees laughed about was the smell produced by the fuel when it is burned.

“It smells like whatever it was cooked in,” Wagner said, saying it can range from French fries to egg rolls and wontons.

Wagner and the employees said the smell is much more pleasant than regular diesel, and makes you want run to McDonalds for fries after an afternoon of running the equipment.

Wagner said Simpson is the only school within the state that he knows of producing its own biodiesel.

Rehmeier, who teaches the importance of sustainability in environmental issues classes, said the fact that Simpson is producing its own clean burning fuel shows its commitments to sustainability.

“I think it says great things about our students and administrators interest in making a sustainable, greener campus,” Rehmeier said. “We have a big footprint as a group of 17 hundred people in a confined area, so I think it’s a great sign that our students are aware of what we could do better, our administrators are aware of what we could do better and are willing to devote time and energy into it.”

Wagner added that he hopes if Simpson students are aware of biodiesel production, they may become more aware of sustainability and push for other sustainable projects to reduce the campus’ carbon footprint.

“Everyone needs to be aware, and everyone needs to do their part,” Wagner said.