Biodiesel@MIT Secures Location for Storing Processor to Make Biofuels

After months of simmering on MIT’s back burner, Biodiesel@MIT’s project may finally get cooking. At last, the club has found a location for its biodiesel processor, and soon MIT SafeRides and Tech Shuttles may run on fuel made from dining halls’ used vegetable oil.

Once up and running, the biodiesel processor will turn vegetable oil from dining halls and other on-campus sources into certified fuel, which will then be incorporated into a 20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent regular diesel mix. This will prevent older SafeRide engines from seizing in Boston winters. Most public transportation that runs on biodiesel uses this hybrid fuel instead of just biodiesel.

At times, the Biodiesel@MIT student group has seemed beset by forces beyond its control. A clever video promoting the group’s biodiesel dream won it a $25,000 prize in March 2007 from the mtvU/General Electric Ecomagination Challenge — but the check took months to arrive.

The group spent almost a year searching for a suitable location for a biodiesel processor, with the anticipated costs of installing and converting proposed sites gradually growing from thousands of dollars to over $100,000. By early May 2008, when the costs of each location seemed far out of reach, group leaders were ready to give up and donate their winnings to general campus energy funds.

But then they found the Francis Bitter Magnet Lab (NW14). A multipurpose room in the building has water, electricity, loading dock access, and it meets MIT Environmental Health & Safety specifications — making it practically perfect for a biodiesel processor.

There was just one problem: until last week, it was inhabited by a Course XII graduate student doing thesis work. Biodiesel@MIT “made him finish faster,” said Sara A. Barnowski ’10, president of the club.

After a ventilation system is installed, the room will be ready for the processor. By late October, all renovations of the space should be finished, Barnowski said.

The group has opened a $15,000 purchase order for a biodiesel processor from MBP Bioenergy, LLC, based in North Conway, New Hampshire. Once Biodiesel@MIT gives the go-ahead, the processor should be operational within three weeks.

MBP hopes “to place 20 units in each State within the next 12 months with a stated processing goal of 5,000,000 gallons,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

As of February, MBP had signed up more than 150 restaurants to supply used food oil, and it had produced more than 150,000 gallons of biodiesel, The Boston Globe reported. The company was also partnering with students at the University of New Hampshire in Durham to set up a scaled-down version of MBP’s processor, the Globe reported.

MBP wants to “get involved with greening college campuses,” Barnowski said. She said she will ask MBP’s sales and marketing development director, Jim Proulx, to personally install the processor as soon as possible, ideally by mid-November. (Proulx is also a co-owner of Proulx Oil and Propane, a regional New Hampshire energy company.)

The project’s total cost is estimated at about $25,000. In the spring, when it seemed that any location of the processor would incur astronomically high costs, the group secured loan offers of $30,000 from the Dean of Student Life and the Committee for the Review of Space Planning (CRSP) — offers that are still on the table should the group need the money, Barnowski said.

Biodiesel@MIT’s next task is trying to synchronize the Student Activities Office, Campus Dining, and the Grounds Department to get used vegetable oil transported to NW14. Biodiesel@MIT hopes to hold an opening ceremony for the processor by the beginning of the spring semester, if not sooner, Barnowski said.

Although Biodiesel@MIT is a student project, Institute staff are substantially involved with the project. Philip J. Walsh, director of the Campus Activities Complex, is raising awareness of the project, Barnowski said. Facilities Project Manager Evan Koska is managing the infrastructure on MIT’s end. And Barnowski said that she had also gotten support from Niamh Kelly and Bret Dyer from the Environmental Health and Safety Office.

“Now we are a priority for the administration, which is awesome,” Barnowski said.