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Green Promise: UC Team Seeking to Turn Fryer Fat to Fuel Competes in National EPA Event

At UC, waste fryer fat from campus eateries is collected and treated to be used as an alternative fuel source at the university utility plant. This proof-of-concept effort is the basis for a further proposal to collect trap grease from Cincinnati’s sewer system and convert it into biodiesel. A UC team will present this idea at an EPA conference over Earth Day weekend, seeking to win a grant worth up to $90,000.

Date: 4/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Provied by Mingming Lu

UC ingot   Since 2007, the University of Cincinnati’s Mingming Lu, associate professor of engineering, and her team of students have collected about 35 gallons of waste fryer fat per month from campus eateries.

They’ve then routinely cleaned and treated the waste cooking oil, at a cost of about $1.35 per gallon, to make biodiesel. And in late 2009, after appropriate testing and needed Environmental Protection Agency approval, Lu partnered with UC’s power plant to use this biodiesel for campus power generation,  producing enough energy to sustain the electricity needs of four to five residence-hall rooms each year.
UC team converting fryer fat to fuel
The team converting fryer fat to fuel includes, from left, UC grad Ming Chai, now with Bluegrass Biodiesel; UC students Jingjing Wang and Mark Schutte; UC faculty Mingming Lu; UC student Qingshi Tu; and Ting Lu of the Metropolitan Sewer District.

During Earth Day weekend – April 21 and 22, with Earth Day being observed on April 22 – a UC team led by Lu, in partnership with Bluegrass Biodiesel of Falmouth, Ky., and the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD), will present on a hoped-for expansion of the fryer-fat-to-biodiesel effort. They will present their work to date and plans for the future at the U.S. EPA’s 2012 National Sustainable Design Expo to be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The event features a student contest – titled “P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability” – where teams showcase innovative solutions to environmental problems in an effort to win EPA funding worth up to $90,000. At the expo, the projects will be judged by a panel of experts. A few teams will be selected for phase 2 grants up to $90,000 for students to improve their designs, implement them in the field, or move them to the marketplace.

The UC presentation is titled “Community-Based Biodiesel Production from Trap Grease: The Evaluation of Technical and Economic Feasibilities.” (Trap grease is the waste grease which restaurants trap before it goes down the sewer.)

UC and its partners would like to develop a community-scale biodiesel production system that would convert trap grease collected from sewers to convert to biodiesel. (Previously, the partnership had won a $15,000 EPA award for phase 1 efforts to survey the amount of trap grease that could be collected in Cincinnati sewers for possible conversion into biodiesel, the composition of trap grease in Cincinnati sewers, projected biodiesel yields and expected costs.)

According to Lu, the next goal, if the local effort could win phase 2 EPA funding, would include pilot demonstrations and setting up a pretreatment system with Bluegrass Biodiesel and MSD at a 100-gallon pilot facility. The team hopes to win the up to $90,000 EPA funding grant for that purpose.

UC’s team will be competing for that grant against 44 other U.S. colleges and universities at the National Sustainable Design Expo, including Cornell, Princeton and Vanderbilt universities.
Part of the biodiesel apparatus at the UC power plant.
Part of the apparatus at UC's power plant used to convert fryer fat to biodiesel.

If the UC fryer-fat-to-biodiesel project could expand to a municipal level, the environmental and economic benefits would also expand. These include
  • Reuse of what is now considered a waste product. Trap grease is now considered a burden and an expense in terms of disposal. It usually ends up in landfills.
  • Waste cooking oil and trap grease (originating from vegetable oil or animal fats) are a renewable energy source found locally, thus reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. It could thus benefit the community b reducing waste and bringing fuel-cost savings.  
The UC-Bluegrass Biodiesel-MSD partnership should know by April 24 if their project has won phase 2 EPA funding.

  • Find out about more UC Earth Week events, including presentations, workshops and the planting of about 100 trees starting at 10 a.m., Sunday, April 22, on UC’s Victory Parkway campus, 2220 Victory Parkway, Walnut Hills. Those trees will be planted at the rear of the campus buildings.