Isaac Cunningham
October 21, 2003

Biodiesel Cooperative at Whitman College

Objectives of the Internship:

A. Help with logistics and set up at Northwest Renewable Energy Festival.

B. Meetings with James Valdez and other Walla Walla community members who are interested in exploring biodiesel resources.

C. Conducting research and producing outreach materials to educate the community
about biodiesel.

D. Developing a budget and materials list for testing and production of biodiesel at Whitman College.

E. Researching a possible site for biodiesel production at the college.


Northwest Renewable Energy Festival

My involvement in the festival was logistical planning. I was in charge of organizing the placement of exhibits on the Cordiner side lawn. I made a map of parcels and a list of exhibitors. I gave numbers to the parcels and then assigned exhibitors to them. Most of this busywork was done on the evening of September 16th.

On September 19th I arrived early to set up tables and actually mark the parcels out in the grass with flags. I was then put in charge of delegating tasks to the student volunteers. Due to Friday class commitments I actually missed most of the festival presentations.

Completion of these objectives meant researching the process of biodiesel production as well as obtaining knowledge of diesel machinery and its extensive use. Before I could really start the process, I had to read up on the current information. The main source of information on the subject of biodiesel is the book From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank : the complete guide to using vegetable oil as an alternative fuel by Joshua Tickell.


From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank:

In the book, Tickell describes the history of the diesel engine. Diesel engines have been widely used for more than 100 years. They are considered more reliable and long lasting than gasoline engines.

Tickell gives a history of biodiesel. Biodiesel can be refined from any oil through a simple process called transesterification. Oil will react with alcohol to produce biodiesel and glycerin. Biodiesel can be mixed with regular petroleum diesel in any quantity or used independently. Using biodiesel instead of petroleum diesel has been found to significantly reduce emissions of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and sulfates which contribute to air pollution problems and global warming . In addition, the biodiesel smells like French fries or donuts instead of the typical, unpleasant diesel odor.

The book gives directions for making small and large quantities of biodiesel from used vegetable oil.

A small quantity of biodiesel can be made in a household size blender. One simply mixes 200ml of methanol with approximately 6grams of NaOH (lye). Different quantities of NaOH are needed depending on the quality and purity of the vegetable oil. When the lye dissolves in the methanol, the solution is added to 1 liter of oil (canola, soybean, olive, etc). Everything is blended on low for approximately one minute. Then the mixture must sit for about 30-40 minutes. In that time a clear separation will occur as the glycerin settles to the bottom where it can be drained away. Complete separation will take a few hours. The end product is 80 parts biodiesel and 20 parts glycerin.

For larger quantities larger holding tanks are needed. Tickell recommends separate tanks for mixing the methanol with the NaOH and mixing the oil with the methanol NaOH solution. Larger quantities have longer mixing times and longer separation times. Tickell suggests Polyethylene mixing tanks with conical bottoms to allow for easy drainage of the glycerin.

All the guidelines for creating a biodiesel facility of moderate volume are given in this book.


Creating a Biodiesel Production Site at Whitman

The proposed size for this facility will need to be no bigger than a single car garage. It should to be well ventilated. Access to water via sink or hose will ensure safety from spilled methanol or lye. Electricity will be needed to power an electric motor. The equipment once purchased should be kept locked and secure. Whitman College currently owns a number of possible places for the facility. Nearly any garage or storage shed could be converted for this use.

After identifying a couple of storage garages and sheds owned by Whitman, Jaimes and I met with administrators at the physical plant to try and make secure a place for the project. Our meeting with Dan Park presented a problem which must be solved before a site can be granted to us.

Finding a Source of Vegetable Oil

Originally the plan was to use the oil from the dining halls on campus to make biodiesel. Dan Park informed us that there is a company which empties the oil and other waste holding tanks for Bon Appetit. Emptying the other waste tanks is contingent on their access to the oil tanks. The only options remaining are to reimburse the company for the market price of the cooking oil or find local restaurants to support our project.

Making a Small test batch of Biodiesel

On Sunday, October 19, Jaimes, myself, and six chemistry students interested in the project congregated in Jaimes’ back yard. Jaimes and I demonstrated the biodiesel refinement process.

Taking the proper safety precautions to protect ourselves from the lye, we agitated the ingredients (Canola oil, methanol, and lye) in a blender designated specifically for making biodiesel. About 45 minutes later, the glycerin had noticeably separated from the biodiesel.

One of the chemistry students volunteered to test the results to see whether it meets the specifications needed to fuel a standard diesel engine.

Getting Funding

On Tuesday, November 4, Jaimes and I met with Peter Harvey, Treasurer of Whitman College. We summarized the details of our project and the possibilities for Whitman’s involvement. We presented a budget and materials list for testing and production of biodiesel at Whitman College.

Mr. Harvey’s expressed concern on behalf of the college surrounding liability. Mr. Harvey made it clear that Whitman College could not financially support any project which did not take the highest safety precautions.

One specific liability we discussed was fire code. Mr. Harvey speculated that the Walla Walla fire department would disapprove of the facility and even the making of small batches of biodiesel. In fact though, Walla Walla city code does not prohibit the production or storage of biodiesel in any way. Mr. Harvey did not express any interest in exploring possible safety measures which would be supportable by the college.

On top of the fire safety issue, Mr. Harvey posed the question “what will be done with the glycerin byproduct?” Jaimes and I mentioned that glycerin composts easily. However, Mr. Harvey would not support that idea.

Soon after the meeting, I was informed that Whitman College would not support the making of biodiesel even in blender size quantities as part of my internship. We were also forbidden to use Whitman College facilities to test the biodiesel we made.
Middlebury College takes the glycerin produced from biodiesel manufacturing and mixes it with the compost already collected from the dining halls. Glycerin decomposes in a few days.

Other Options

Since the primary objectives for my internship were rebuffed by the college, I explored via the internet similar projects at other colleges.

I e-mailed Joe Thompson, a professor at the University of Idaho. U of I already has a biodiesel facility. I asked him where the university received its oil. His response was that their facility uses rapeseed oil from the rapeseed grown by the agricultural department at the university.

Whitman of course does not have such a source of oil so this information was not helpful in solving the problem.

I contacted some local businesses. A number of restaurants and bars in town are willing to supply used vegetable oil to support the project.

I e-mailed Ron Schildge at Middlebury College in Vermont. Middlebury recently created a biodiesel facility using oil from their dining hall. I asked him about similar liability concerns that Peter Harvey expressed. His reply was that biodiesel has a flash point temperature which is much higher than petroleum diesel, which in turn is higher than regular gasoline. He said that since Middlebury College was already in the practice of storing gasoline, storing biodiesel was not an issue.



After reading From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank : the complete guide to using vegetable oil as an alternative fuel by Joshua Tickell, I was inspired by the tremendous possibilities of alternative fuels. The book gives directions for converting diesel engines to run on straight vegetable oil. This conversion requires the addition of a heating element because the oil must be hot as it enters the engine. Most vehicles of this sort have two fuel tanks: one of vegetable oil and the other diesel or biodiesel.

I purchased the book from the wide selection of books available at the Northwest Renewable Energy Festival. The festival itself was an inspiration. I was particularly interested in the electric car which was modeled. It was clear that the technologies for alternative energy products are already available, but somehow there is an overwhelming nationwide lack of significant demand.

My enthusiasm for the biodiesel project was increased by the NREF because I felt that my internship was part of a larger movement to increase knowledge and awareness about alternative and renewable energy resources. However, this enthusiasm was greatly shaken after my meeting with Dan Park.

Mr. Park presented me with the first significant hurdles in the project. Where can we house the production facility? And what will be our source of oil? The meeting was very disappointing. Nevertheless, I felt this was a challenge to be overcome. I began exploring other options.

After the meeting with Peter Harvey, I lost all hope for establishing a biodiesel facility at Whitman College. Both Mr. Park and Mr. Harvey through their attitudes towards the project were in no way open to the idea. Mr. Harvey addressed the glycerin problem as if it were toxic waste that Whitman would have to address as a liability despite the facts Jaimes and I presented. It was clear from the beginning of each meeting that they were not willing to negotiate or entertain solutions to any of the problems they presented. My impression was that they would find more hurdles if we came close to overcoming the preliminary ones.

It is my belief that the project was dismissed based on speculation and unfounded safety concerns because it was merely a student organized project. Whitman College currently stores gasoline at the Physical Plant. Gasoline is far more flammable and potentially dangerous that biodiesel. Chemistry students currently use gasoline for testing projects similar to the process needed to test the physical specifications of biodiesel. In light of these facts I do not think any of the concerns brought up by Mr. Park or Mr. Harvey would stand in the way if the project was being led by a professor.