BU Biofuel Bus Running Well but About to Hibernate

Refining site for "BU Biofuel Initiative" on upper campus. photo by Dr. Mark Tapsak
Refining site for "BU Biofuel Initiative" on upper campus. photo by Dr. Mark Tapsak
Biofuel Bus: “Bus #5.” photo by Dr. Mark Tapsak

BU’s first environmentally friendly shuttle bus, “Bus #5,” has been running well, according to those involved, with the “BU Biofuels Initiative,” two science professors and volunteer students, fuelling the vehicle weekly with 100% carbon neutral biofuel that has been converted from used fryer oil. But “Bus #5,” which started running last April, will soon be going into hibernation come October since the fuel must be kept above 40 degrees at all times and the engine lacks the heating equipment necessary to maintain that temperature as the weather cools, said Bill Fisher, BU Transportation Manager.

The “BU Biofuels Initiative” was submitted to the Bloomsburg University Foundation as a Margin of Excellence Project last January by Dr. Nathaniel Greene, Assoc. Professor of Physics and Engineering, with the help of Dr. Mark Tapsak, Asst. Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In their initial project proposal Green and Tapsak wanted to not only fuel the 25 passenger “Bus #5,” with B100 (100% plant based fuel) but use B5– a blend of 5% biodiesel and 95% petrodiesel—to fuel other University buses.(The engine warranties for University buses only allow a 5% blend.) But so far state contract issues regarding fuel purchases have prevented this from happening, said Fisher.

The biofuel used in “Bus #5”— and all plant-based fuel— releases CO2 just like fossil fuels. But unlike fossil fuels, the plants were absorbing and removing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis before being harvested and turned into vegetable oil. By using plant matter, like vegetable oil, as a fuel, the overall effect is carbon neutral: the CO2 being released into the atmosphere from the biofuel was the same CO2 that was absorbed by the plants that created the biofuel.

The biodiesel provides approximately the same M.P.G. efficiency as regular petrodiesel according to Tapsak, Greene and bus drivers. And biodiesel emissions are virtually devoid of sulfur oxides and sulfates, two main components of acid rain, according to the National Biodiesel Board’s website.

“Bus #5” was a perfect vehicle to experiment on, said Tapsak, for several reasons. Engine manufacturers typically null and void a warranty if anything other than gas or diesel is being used (or any blend higher the aforementioned 5%.) The warranty on “Bus #5” expired a few years ago and the vehicle is certainly not new. It wasn’t a risky venture—if the bus didn’t run on biofuel the University would not have lost a lot of money.

All of the University’s ten shuttle buses have diesel engines, so making them carbon neutral is certainly possible but very unlikely.

Greene estimates, very roughly, that it would take more than 10,000 gallons of used fryer oil to fuel the University’s bus fleet and said it would be unrealistic to try and collect that amount from local sources. (The University in its entirety—the bus fleet, 4 tractors,3 dump trucks, various landscaping equipment and one stationary power plant in the Boiler House—uses about 28,000 gallons of regular diesel a year.)

The “BU Biofuel Initiative” is producing just enough fuel for “Bus #5”—the equivalent of nearly 1,200 gallons a year, said Tapsak.

The weekly refinery process is relatively simple in terms of the required human labor, said Tapsak. Using a University truck they collect the used oil from campus dining facilities and several restaurants downtown and bring it to a greenhouse on upper campus that serves as the refinery site. Here the oil is transferred and filtered into a container resembling a residential water heater, said Tapsak, where it is heated and mixed with the appropriate ingredients.

“The recipe is—for every 100 gallons of vegetable oil we start with, we’ll add 20 gallons of methanol and a little bit of Sodium Hydroxide,” said Tapsak. Then the mixture is heated and cleaned via a week-long separation process. The end result is 100 gallons of biodiesel and 20 gallons of glycerol, the latter of which is composted.

But the glycerol, which is commonly found in hand lotion, soap and shampoo, might soon be found inside campus bathrooms. Tapsak said he is hoping to team up with some BU business and management groups and offer the glycerol as a marketable campus soap product

The environmental success of the technology used in “Bus #5” lies in the fact that it is immune to the economic criticisms of certain biofuels, like ethanol, that use corn or other crops to create the fuel and have driven up world food prices by 75% since 2002, according to an April 2008 World Bank report. “Bus #5” uses fryer oil from Aramark and other restaurants that would otherwise be discarded, not crops or vegetable oil grown specifically for use as a fuel.

B100 and any subsequent blends of biofuel and petrodiesel will fuel any diesel engine. Tapsak actually uses biodiesel to heat his home and run his van, tractors and lawnmowers.

Dr. Tapsak is very much trying to promote the project, generate student involvement and develop similar environmental ventures. He has offered his time to the entire faculty to speak to any class or organization from any department on every aspect of bio-fuels.

This article also appears in the September 18th issue of The Voice.

Comments

comments