The Biodiesel@MIT team was 10 minutes into its Powerpoint presentation--a talk the group had given many times to drum up support for bringing a biodiesel processor to campus--when there was a loud knock on the Building 56 conference room door. MTV veejay Gardner Loulan burst in, mike in hand, with an oversized bunch of green balloons in tow.
"Hey, I hate to interrupt, but I'm here on behalf of GE and mtvU to tell you that you have won the Ecomagination Challenge!" he said. Then it was hugs, handshakes and high fives all around.
That was how Biodiesel@MIT--a student-led initiative to turn used vegetable oil from campus dining facilities into biodiesel fuel for MIT diesel campus vehicles--found out they had won a national contest and $25,000 from GE and mtvU, MTV's 24-hour college network. The grant will go toward a biodiesel processor in a solar-powered filling station on the MIT campus.
The group was one of 10 finalists in GE/mtvU's Ecomagination challenge, which encouraged student involvement in campus greening and raising awareness for sustainability. Student groups from across the country submitted proposals for projects that would make their campuses more environmentally friendly.
Projects were judged on ecology, economics and creativity. Britta Barrett from GE corporate communications told the eight students in the room, who thought they were giving the presentation for MIT Energy Initiative education task force chair Angela Belcher, professor of biological engineering and materials science and engineering, and being videotaped for a new MIT task force web page on student energy-related initiatives, that their proposal was the best of the 10 finalists.
Matt Zedler, one of the biodiesel group's organizers and a senior mechanical engineering major from Richmond, Va., said that the carefully planned surprise announcement was, in fact, a surprise. "We weren't sure what was going on," he said, adding that he had been checking the challenge web site all morning for the March 15 announcement.
In addition to the $25,000 grant, MIT gets an mtvU Earth Day concert and festival headlined by Angels & Airwaves in April. All students are invited.
From fryer to fuel
MIT Dining's Fry-o-lators work almost around the clock to serve up French fries and chicken fingers. And every month, MIT pays $1.10 a gallon to cart away the used-up vegetable oil.
Biodiesel@MIT wants to see that dark brown liquid processed and pumped into the tanks of campus vehicles such as the Tech Shuttles, which will soon use up to 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, and others owned by the Department of Facilities.
The goal, according to Zedler, is to have this up and running as soon as possible. The group of around 20 students and administrators is confident they can make it happen, especially now with $25,000 in prize money.
"MIT wants to 'walk the talk' on energy and the environment, and I believe that this project will pave the way for more student-led campus sustainability initiatives," said Joseph D. Roy-Mayhew, a junior chemical-biological engineering major who first looked into the feasibility of an on-campus biodiesel processor during a January 2006 IAP class sponsored by the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. He further developed the idea with support from a Campus Sustainability UROP through the Environmental Programs Office. Zedler and more than a dozen others have since taken up the cause.
Biodiesel@MIT proposes to install a processor to convert used vegetable oil (UVO) to biodiesel and to later help plan a solar-powered fueling station where this local biodiesel would be available. The 20 percent bio-derived fuel called B20 would be useable by most MIT diesel vehicles, all of which currently have to go off-campus to fuel up.
The up-front $15,000 price tag would buy a processor (although MIT students could build their own, the need for fuel certification and a short timeline led to the decision to purchase a commercial processor), pay for a system to collect the UVO from MIT Campus Dining and pay student operators to process the UVO. MIT would save $4,000 a year in UVO disposal costs and potentially save upwards of $12,000 a year in reduced petroleum diesel costs. Using vegetable-based diesel would also significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from MIT's diesel fleet.
The biodiesel project is a tangible contribution toward the "campus as learning laboratory" aspect of the MIT Energy Initiative established by MIT President Susan Hockfield in the fall. Zedler envisions professors using the processor-fueling station for research or as part of a class; mechanical engineering students using the facility to test different kinds of engines with the alternative fuel; and chemical engineering students seeing first-hand how such processors work.
Eventually, Zedler said, the system may be expanded to make an ever-greater dent in MIT's overall $50 million annual energy budget, especially as more of the university's shuttles convert to diesel. "Recycling used vegetable oil on MIT's campus represents an initial stride toward more sustainable campus operations, and I feel the level of support for this project from the students and administrators in the MIT community is a clear indicator of the desire for such on-campus greening projects now and in the future," Zedler said.
"We keep looking for new ways to create and store energy, yet we often don't look at how we could use what we already have more efficiently or in unorthodox ways," Roy-Mayhew said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 14, 2007 (download PDF).