Veggie Oil leads to alternative fuel source

Shamim Ahsan, assistant professor of environmental science, explains his new project of turning vegetable oil into usable biodiesel that will fuel utility vehicles on campus. Photo by Maalikah Hartley

Here’s the drill: MSU Denver is taking cooking oil out of the kitchen and putting it into the gas tank.

With the help of the environmental science, chemistry and engineering technology departments, the Hospitality Learning Center will recycle its vegetable oil to fuel a new biodiesel prototype project.

Using a $2,500 seed grant, Shamim Ahsan, assistant professor of environmental science, will begin the project in January in a building that will be called the Fifth Street Hub. The building will house a bioreactor, which will heat and filter the vegetable oil into usable biodiesel.

Ahsan and his team hope to receive a larger grant from private, public and government donors to fund a permanent operation if the project is successful by summer and receives a positive community response via surveys. Ahsan also hopes to create a course in sustainable energy for students of the involved departments.

“Energy is a global issue. The demand is exponentially growing,” Ahsan said. “Unless we find some alternative resources we’ll keep relying on dirty fuels. In Colorado, people are aware about green energy, but there are not too much initiatives here.”

The process will start at the HLC, where gallons of vegetable oil will be collected from the learning center’s kitchens, the Red Robin’s Burger Works and the SpringHill Suites Hotel. The oil then will be taken to the bioreactor at the Fifth Street Hub, where the chemistry department will oversee the process of changing the oil to biodiesel while researching ways to make the biodiesel purer and more efficient.

The environmental science department will look into the environmental effects of burning the biodiesel and the engineering technology department will test the efficiency of the fuel on engines. The oil will be heated and filtered to create usable biodiesel, and by-products such as glycerol will be sold to soap companies for usage, Ahsan said.

“I wanted to be involved to test the effect of the biodiesel fuel on engine components and to determine the power output of the fuel,” said Richard Pozzi, the chair of the engineering technology department. “The mechanical engineering technology department is very interested in testing the fuel in engines. Once involved, I worked with the new hotel to obtain the rights for all their grease to use as the input for the biodiesel project.”

Pozzi would also like to power the entire operation using solar panels, creating a “totally green process.”

Chad Gruhl, department chair of the hospitality, tourism and events department, said he is always looking for ways to recycle and collaborate with other schools.

“It’s absolutely awesome,” Gruhl said. “That’s been our target — to do as much as we possibly can from a green standpoint. All of the carpeting here is made of plastic bottles and almost all of our rooms are on sensors. After a guest walks out the temperature drops as well as the lights.”

Gruhl said the biodiesel project will help his department to reach gold in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification — the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability.

While Ahsan admitted the process behind the creation of ethanol from corn and sugar cane is flawed because of soil degradation, population relocation, and rising corn prices, he says his project is not implicated since it is using resources that would otherwise be wasted. In the future, Ahsan also hopes to test other products such as algae, which can be grown out of small ponds, into making biodiesel. The biology department would also then have to come on board the project.

“[Much] of the ecosystem we have already degraded,” Ahsan said. “But we are not creating new land. So we have to just remediate those lands.”

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Maalikah Hartley

Maalikah Hartley has contributed to The Metropolitan as a reporter and assistant news editor since summer 2012. She is majoring in convergent journalism and expects to graduate in 2014. Maalikah is interested in alternative news media and hopes to someday start her own operation or join a respected independent news organization.

Maalikah Hartley has contributed to The Metropolitan as a reporter and assistant news editor since summer 2012. She is majoring in convergent journalism and expects to graduate in 2014. Maalikah is interested in alternative news media and hopes to someday start her own operation or join a respected independent news organization.

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