Environment

From cooking oil to biodiesel

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, June 05, 2013    

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WHAT did you do with the oil left over from the chicken you fried for dinner on Sunday?

Storing it for reuse is not good, neither is dumping it in the backyard or throwing it down the drain. The best option, according to scientists, is not only environmentally-friendly, but practical too — converting it to biodiesel.

A team from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and non-governmental organisation Youth Crime Watch Jamaica (YCWJ) will today launch such a project; turning waste vegetable oil into biodiesel. The intention is to introduce at-risk youth to alternative energy — both for environmental and income-generating reasons. It is financed to the tune of US$50,000 by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme and is scheduled to run for 18 months.

The launch coincides with World Environment Day, being observed under the theme: "Think. Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint".

"It is difficult to dispose of used cooking oil," lecturer of applied chemistry at the university and lead researcher on the project Dr Michael Coley told the Jamaica Observer. "There are many restaurants, for example, which generate five gallons of waste oil on a weekly basis. The challenge is, if they put that bottle of waste oil in a garbage truck, once it compresses the bottle will burst and the oil will seep out and eventually affect the brakes of the vehicle; so, even on campus it's a challenge for our garbage trucks: They do not take up waste oil.

"The concern is the poor disposal of that oil from an environmental point of view. What the project does is take that waste and convert it to biodiesel, which is a useful product. A by-product of that is glycerol which, once you purify it so to speak, is also a useful product. So, essentially we're taking a waste, which is difficult to dispose of and converting it into two useful products," he said.

Biodiesel, added resource mobilisation co-ordinator for the Faculty of Science and Technology Dr Julie-Ann Grant, can be used in any diesel engine, including motor vehicles. The big plus for her, though, is that its sulphur and carbon monoxide emissions are low compared to petroleum diesel.

"You could mix with it regular petroleum diesel and the engine requires no modification or anything like that. There are trucking companies, for example, that are very, very keen on having petroleum diesel mixed with biodiesel because it cuts down on the cost of energy," added Dr Coley.

Explaining the process of conversion, he said his team first assesses the quality of the oil collected, cleans it up, then adds chemicals.

"We measure the free fatty acid content, which gives us an idea of the extent to which the oil has been broken down. The more you use cooking oil for frying for example, the darker the colour tends to get, which is an indication that the oil is gradually breaking down. We prefer oil which, when we assess it, has less than five per cent free fatty acids, which means it is not very dark and will not require a large amount of chemicals or time to convert to biodiesel.

"Next, what we do is remove moisture and particulates, essentially strain the oil, and then we carry out the actual chemical conversion. What we get at that stage is crude biodiesel which we clean up, meaning we remove any un-reacted components and then dry to make it suitable for fuel use. So, in essence, at end of process what we have is fuel grade biodiesel," the scientist said.

The process takes about two-and-a-half hours if carried out on a lab scale. For pilot-scale work, it takes about 24 hours.

As Dr Grant explained, the idea for the UWI/YCWJ collaboration came from the response to the university's summer course in alternative energy.

"UWI has, for a number of years, done a course in alternative energy... One of the features of that course was biodiesel production, and we found that the public was particularly interested. So, because of that interest generated, we submitted it as a project to the Small Grants Programme with YCWJ as lead, and because UWI and YCWJ have had collaboration over the years, we thought it was a really nice fit. We provide technical support and they engage the community," she said.

So far, the team has collected roughly 400 gallons, about 80 per cent of which is useable. There is potential to collect much more, however, as polls of about 34 eateries on the university campus as well as in Papine, Liguanea, and parts of Half-Way-Tree, show that they produce just over 1,000 gallons of waste cooking oil monthly. "Not all of that will be suitable for biodiesel production, but at least half of it is useable," said Coley.

Initially, the project will employ 30 community members, explained YCWJ Project Manager Edward Dixon. They will be trained in the conversion process and schooled in ways to transfer the knowledge into successful entrepreneurial ventures.

"One of the clinchers is the involvement of at-risk persons both from the community and schools. We want them to get an understanding of general environmental stewardship and of the importance of using waste vegetable oil — that is oil which would have normally been thrown away or placed in the garbage — by using it now for a purpose that can actually generate some income," he told the Observer.

"It's saving the environment by not throwing away something that can be useful, using it for alternative energy and making some money from it, which leads to some sort of sustainability. So it's not just a project which will leave them feeling exploited, but something that can be a potential income generating," Dixon added.

At the end of the 18 months, the YWCJ hopes to see the use of renewable energy sources at the local community and school level.

The communities currently part of the project are Arnett Gardens, August Town, Nannyville, McIntyre Villas, Trench Town, and Tivoli Gardens. The institutions are Melrose, Maverly, Norman Gardens, Cockburn Gardens, and Calabar primary and junior high schools, as well as Holy Family and St Michael's primary.

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