MIT Biodiesel Team Future Uncertain As Costs Wildly Escalate

The Biodiesel@MIT project, which aimed to reprocess used vegetable oil from campus dining facilities into eco-friendly biodiesel fuel to power the Tech and SafeRide shuttles, appears to have called it quits earlier this week, after running into a series of difficulties acquiring space and growing costs.

In March 2007, the biodiesel project won $25,000 from the mtvU/General Electric Ecomagination Challenge, which they planned to use to purchase a biodiesel fuel processor and retrofit space for installing the processor. Joseph D. Roy-Mayhew ’08, who thought up the project as part of a 2006 Independent Activities Period seminar, previously told The Tech that the team hoped to have the project fueling MIT’s shuttles by the start of the 2007 academic year.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned.

Costs grew by $100k

Roy-Mayhew said that the biodiesel team presented their proposal to administrators around two years ago. The team considered using four different locations at MIT, all of which would need a variety of modifications to support the processor’s water, power, sewage, or safety needs. “In it, we accounted $3,000 for EHS [and] safety purposes, [but] the costs escalated … quite rapidly,” he said.

After a six-month delay in receiving the prize money from GE, the biodiesel team was still looking for a suitable site to install the fuel processor at the start of this term. “We got an estimate … [from Facilities] for $35,000 for two different locations,” said Roy-Mayhew, who said the estimates included fees for unexpected costs.

Though the $35,000 was beyond the project’s prize money (which was also needed to purchase a $15,000 fuel processor), MIT’s Committee for the Review of Space Planning offered to loan money to support the project. “[We were] fairly surprised that CRSP did agree to foot half the bill with us,” said Roy-Mayhew. Over time, money loaned by CRSP would be paid back by the purchase of biodiesel from the processor.

Associate Provost Lorna J. Gibson, who chairs CRSP, said that the project’s costs quickly grew out of control. “Eventually [the] recycling area went up to $60,000,” said Gibson. “[CRSP] offered to pick up the difference to try to support project,” she said, “[but] then it went up to $137,000.”

Roy-Mayhew attributed huge cost increases to fire safety equipment requirements, but said Biodiesel@MIT was never told exactly why the cost increased by nearly $100,000.

Sara A. Barnowski ’10, current president of the biodiesel team, said that the team had “no idea that there was going to be so much renovation involved,” which meant that some of the team’s own price estimates were far off. “[But] I don’t even think Facilities really knew what kind of renovation costs or what kind of construction costs it was going to require,” said Barnowski.

Gibson said the project “has not been a very smooth [one].” Gibson said that when Facilities first assessed the project, they weren’t aware of all of the Environmental Health & Safety issues regarding a fuel processor. Key issues include fire suppression and spill mitigation.

Gibson also mentioned that Facilities transitions complicated original cost estimates. There was a major restructuring of MIT Facilities during the Biodiesel@MIT project, which split the department into two divisions. “The people we ended up working with [had] only been here a couple of months,” said Barnowski. “[Facilities] sort of admitted that they … didn’t originally carry out a … robust enough analysis of each location,” said Barnowski.

A possible solution

Eventually, however, CRSP and Facilities managed to bring the costs back down near $60,000. Roy-Mayhew said that a manager had been found to direct any renovations, and that the processor could be installed in the lower level of the Grounds Garage.

“[We] started to get the legal work [done] for the processor [and] hired UROPs,” said Roy-Mayhew, who added that Biodiesel@MIT was told renovations could be completed by May.

Unfortunately, last Wednesday, May 7, Gibson told the group that constraints on the Grounds Garage meant that it would not be possible to install a fuel processor. It is not clear what those constraints are.

Roy-Mayhew said he was disappointed the project fell through so abruptly, especially after hiring three UROP students for the summer.

Additionally, Barnowski said the team may have already purchased a $15,000 biodiesel processor and service contract from MBP Bioenergy, LLC. “The only step left … was for the company to send us specific invoices. I’m pretty sure that had been done,” said Barnowski. She had not heard back from the administrator in charge of Biodiesel@MIT funds or from MBP Bioenergy.

More money, more problems?

Last Thursday, May 8, Biodiesel@MIT was told in a meeting with CRSP and Facilities members that they might be able to install a processor in W92 if they could raise an additional $20,000, according to Roy-Mayhew.

“A capital cost near $80,000 is not near what we were going to do from the beginning,” said Roy-Mayhew. He added that the team would already be borrowing money from CRSP, and $80,000 vastly exceeded implementation costs at other sites in the U.S. “[Maybe] because it’s in the middle of Cambridge … things do cost that much,” said Roy-Mayhew. Most of the cost — around $50,000 — would go toward health and safety systems, said Barnowski, with the remainder required for other building renovations.

Moreover, a W92 installation was in no way guaranteed, and Biodiesel@MIT would have to start from the beginning, getting new cost estimates and approvals for the location.

Gibson said there wasn’t any additional funding available from CRSP any that there weren’t any other options being considered.

“[There’s a] limit to how much we can put into one student project. We have many requests for lots of things,” said Gibson, later adding that “at some point in the future, maybe things change.”

Barnowski said the team was left with few other options. “[We could] try to take the processor off campus somewhere,” she said, but suggested that an off-site processor wasn’t a likely solution.

Roy-Mayhew said that an off-site processor didn’t mesh with the team’s original goals of sustainability. “[We’re] supposed to be sustainable on campus,” he said, describing the financial and environmental benefits of having a biodiesel processor on campus.

Biodiesel@MIT may end up giving the $25,000 prize money — presuming a processor hasn’t been purchased — to the Environmental Programs Office to support grants for sustainable projects on campus.

But it is not clear that they could give the money away: the terms of the Ecomagination Challenge state that “the money awarded must be applied to cover the creation expenses of the Project described in the winning Application.”

Money or not, the failure to bring a biodiesel processor to MIT may take away from MIT’s educational experience.

“There’s definitely a loss of an academic resource,” said Barnowski. “Course 10 has implemented a lot of biodiesel modules for [Chemical-Biological Engineering Laboratory (10.28)],” she said. Roy-Mayhew said the lab included projects to design quality control kits for biodiesel processors, but now the students have no place to test their designs or see their real-world applications.

Barnowski said she was disappointed the project never came to fruition.

“The people I’ve talked to feel that it’s really unfair and hypocritical … to be pushing the new Energy Initiative, [when] even this project with so much funding and support couldn’t get implemented,” she said.

“We had a lot of theoretical support from higher up in the administration,” Barnowski said, but no one person seemed to take on the project.

Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict expressed surprise at the project’s end in an e-mail sent yesterday to Roy-Mayhew. In the e-mail, Benedict said he thought the plans were finalized last fall.

In the end, “no one was really specifically willing to donate their time, or their money, or their space to the project,” said Barnowski.

“It sort of got lost in the middle.”

Michael McGraw-Herdeg contributed to the reporting of this story.