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IAP seminar explores MIT's energy options

MIT junior Elizabeth Ricker reports on the feasibility of establishing a biodiesel conversion facility on campus during final presentations held Feb. 2 for the four-week IAP course 'Energy and Climate in Cambridge.'
MIT junior Elizabeth Ricker reports on the feasibility of establishing a biodiesel conversion facility on campus during final presentations held Feb. 2 for the four-week IAP course 'Energy and Climate in Cambridge.'
Photo courtesy / LFEE

Generating electricity from wind turbines that look like rooftop box fans and converting used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel are among the energy innovations that MIT may pilot in the not-too-distant future.

On Feb. 2, for the fourth Independent Activities Period (IAP) in a row, students and instructors took part in a continuing experiment in collaborative education involving the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE), the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the city of Cambridge.

In 2002, the Cambridge City Council adopted a plan to reduce in-city greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. This year, five students from MIT and Wellesley researched biodiesel and wind projects during a monthlong seminar. The projects could be piloted at MIT and applied throughout the city if successful.��

"This initiative uses the creativity and energy of the students to investigate a local response to one of the city's most prominent environmental goals: climate protection," said "Energy and Climate in Cambridge" co-instructor Beth Conlin, LFEE education program coordinator.

The students' proposals would prototype energy technology on campus for possible use in the wider community. Wind turbines that perch on the edge of a roof would work best on the Green Building, Johnson Athletic Center, the Wood Sailing Pavilion or the Pierce Boathouse, reported first-year student Jing Han. Han investigated a product called Architectural Wind being developed by AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif.

"For the wind project, we are seeking a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to do a full feasibility study, including site measurements of the available wind resource, economic analysis and other technical and nontechnical issues," such as the effect on birds and noise level, said Peter L. Cooper, manager of sustainability engineering and utility planning in the MIT Department of Facilities. If the project seems promising, a construction grant would allow the wind turbines to be installed a year or more down the road.

A biodiesel conversion facility on campus would take between one and two-and-a-half years to break even, reported Elizabeth Ricker, a junior in brain and cognitive sciences, who worked with Joseph Roy-Mayhew, a sophomore in chemical engineering, and Hailun Wu and Christianne Roach, students at Wellesley College. The team investigated the feasibility of using waste vegetable oil to produce a clean-burning, biodegradable fuel that could help power MIT vehicles and heat MIT buildings.

The students estimated that 5,000 gallons of waste oil could be collected from campus dining facilities and nearby restaurants, saving the Institute money on fuel costs and saving MIT food vendors money spent for waste oil removal. MIT might even build its own processor for the chemical conversion process instead of purchasing one, Roy-Mayhew said.

"When I was working through the numbers and looking into what other schools and communities were doing, I saw that MIT could and probably should go forward with such a project," Roy-Mayhew said. "I could see MIT setting up a biodiesel conversion unit on campus and in the future expanding throughout Cambridge and Boston."

Steven M. Lanou, deputy director of environmental sustainability, said that the biodiesel facility also will be studied for feasibility.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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