In April 2009 Assistant Professor of Engineering Technology, Michael Martin led his Bioenergy class (MET 230) in a biodiesel fuel project. At the beginning of the semester, Martin asked his class what they would like to learn. A few students replied that they were interested in learning how to make biodiesel so Martin generated this project for his class.
The class of sixteen was split into four groups, each of which made about one liter of biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil. In order to create fuel-grade biodiesel, the students participated in a multistage process which lasted two weeks.
First, Potassium hydroxide was dissolved in ethanol to create methoxide, which was then introduced to heated vegetable oil. This mixture was kept at an elevated temperature for an hour and constantly stirred after which it was left to sit for three to seven days. Upon cooling, the mixture separated into glycerin, which fell to the bottom of the beaker, and biodiesel which was able to be skimmed off the top.
Once the fuel was created, the class was skeptical of how well their one hundred percent biodiesel would burn because most biodiesel fuels are blended with fossil-based fuel oils in order to prevent the biodiesel from gelling-up in cold weather. With help from Professor Bob Holtzmann, the class burned their home-brew biodiesel in a fuel oil furnace in the HVAC laboratory.
The class crossed their fingers thinking that they may have to blend their fuel with conventional heating oil in order for it to burn more efficiently. They were pleasantly surprised, however, to find that their biodiesel burned very well in the furnace. The project was a success! The students analyzed the combustion of their fuel and found that it was burning cleanly and efficiently when compared to fossil fuel based heating oil.