University of Rochester

Rochester Review
May-June 2009
Vol. 71, No. 5

Review home


In Review

Student Entrepreneurs Can You Smell the Fries? A student team gets the University’s first biodiesel bus on the road. By Kathleen McGarvey
biodiesel GREEN TEAM: Eric Weissmann ’10, Dave Borrelli ’09, and Dan Fink ’09 are leading a campuswide project to outfit a University bus to run on biodiesel (Photo: Richard Baker).

It had its start, like most successful inventions, in something simple.

“In the beginning, students had an idea—and Dining Services had some oil,” recalls Cam Schauf, director of Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations.

And from those modest but promising roots has come UR Biodiesel, the project of a group of inventive and determined undergraduates who are using waste vegetable oil from campus eateries to fuel a campus bus.

The bus, which made its debut on Earth Day in April, is the culmination of several years’ work by a group of environmentally minded students—Chris Babcock ’07, David Borrelli ’09, Dan Fink ’09, and Eric Weissmann ’10—who were determined to see their idea hit the road.

In early 2007, the four earned second place in the Charles and Janet Forbes Entrepreneurial Competition at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with their business plan for a biodiesel project at the University.

“We really wanted to see this happen,” says Weissmann. “We told people, ‘We actually think we can do this.’” And so the group—without Babcock, who graduated—decided to see what they could do to make their project a reality.

In 2008, University administrators gave the green light—implementation of a fry-oil-to-biodiesel-fuel program was one of the goals outlined in the report issued by the University’s Sustainability Task Force in 2007—but the question of how to manage the details of the project was more complicated.

“There were a lot of logistics to work through,” says Mary Locke, director of operations for Dining Services. An external company had already approached the University about procuring its used frying oil, but Weissmann and his team wanted to convince Locke and others that an entirely student-run project was a viable alternative.

For Locke, that meant hearing satisfactory answers to how the project would operate during breaks, and how it would survive the graduation of the project’s creators. And for the students, it meant confronting other, related problems, such as the vagaries of their fuel supply.

“The amount of grease isn’t as consistent as you’d think,” Weissmann says. “If Danforth does fewer French fries one week, we have less oil. If the Pit does more chicken fingers, we have more.”

But thanks to the combined expertise of the students—Borrelli, of Webster, N.Y., and Fink, of Medford, N.J., are chemical engineering majors, while Weissmann, of Bethesda, Md., is a political science major—Locke found the answers she needed.

“This is multiple disciplines working on a multidisciplinary problem,” says Ben Ebenhack, senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering and UR Biodiesel’s faculty advisor. “To have a venue that thrusts them together to work on the technical and social aspects is very valuable; they’re working together and sharing ideas.” Though student-run, the project’s success also depends on support from administrative units, including Dining Services, River Campus Facilities, and Parking and Transportation Services.

In April 2008, the students traveled with Jeff Foster, director of River Campus Facilities and University Properties, and Eris Oleksyn, trades supervisor and area manager for facilities, to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania to see a biodiesel facility similar to the one the students hoped to construct.

“We were able to study the logistics of building a biodiesel lab, what it could look like, what it could smell like,” says Oleksyn. “We walked away with ideas on how to create a cleaner, safer facility.”

Working with Oleksyn, students built the lab in a facilities garage on Wilson Road. In the spirit of sustainability, they outfitted the lab with unused items from across the University and laid water pipes below the floor to provide radiant heat.

Producing a batch of biodiesel fuel takes about three days. A tanker—actually, an old, tractor-driven watering tank formerly used by the campus grounds workers and converted for its new task by the students—sucks oil from Dining Services receptacles holding the waste vegetable oil. Filtered, mixed with the necessary chemicals methanol and lye, and washed, the oil is ready.

“The diesel engine was originally built to run on peanut oil,” Weissmann says. Most University vehicles do not have diesel engines, but University buses do. And so parking and transportation donated a 38-foot Bluebird school bus, one of the oldest in the University’s fleet.

“A bus is very visible, and we wanted people to see the ‘green,’” says Weissmann.

The bus, which eventually will sport a student-created design chosen in a competition sponsored by the Art and Art History Undergraduate Council, will run a progressive series of routes on campus, making weekend runs to local shopping centers.

Locke says the project has tightened ties between students and University staff, some of whom donate oil from their home kitchens to the effort.

“We live in this community,” Locke says. “And we have a lot invested in what’s going on here. The students see we care and we want to be involved.”

“The endorsement from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that this is an academic project also gave us a lot of reason to help,” adds Schauf. “It’s not often Dining Services gets to contribute to academic endeavors—although we think we can—and when we get the opportunity, we want to take advantage of that.”

Borrelli and Fink are among this spring’s graduates, but Weissmann isn’t being left alone. Student groups like Engineers for a Sustainable World are recruiting freshmen and sophomores to the project.

Student interest in sustainability is high, Weissmann says, and besides, he observes, there’s just something irresistibly satisfying about the project.

“To take gunk and put it in a bus and drive that bus on something we used to pay to get rid of—that’s cool to me.”