PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo JANUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 5
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ON CAMPUS: Mind Your Manners
By Lynne Shallcross

Students at the University of Virginia are developing an alternative fuel from vegetable oil.

UVa. students hope to help the energy problemEven though it’s not on their meal plan, hungry college students typically flock to McDonald’s. But soon it might become more than just a place to grab a quick burger for University of Virginia (UVa.) engineering students.

This fall, two classes of freshman engineering students embarked on a semester-long project of creating biodiesel fuel. Biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil, such as soybean oil from the farms of Virginia or the oil McDonald’s used to fry up its spuds.

A biodiesel converterArmed with vegetable oil from the grocery store and instructions from printed sources and the Internet, these students set out, some skeptically, on a path to produce biodiesel. “I was quite dumbfounded,” says student Palmer McCraw. “I didn’t understand how any professor could expect a group of students to successfully complete such a task.” But McCraw and his peers are surprising themselves. With a lab in the chemical engineering building, chemicals, glassware and a $500 budget, the students, divided into five different design teams, have built a converter for biodiesel fuel. They’ve been busy dissolving sodium hydroxide in methanol, mixing it with the oil, heating the mixture, removing a layer of glycerin and washing the newly created biodiesel.

The class started out with a bit of drama. An engineering professor played the role of a hypothetical client—a county representative from the Richmond area, which is heavy in soybean farmers. He challenged the students to convert the soybean oil from his farmers into biodiesel fuel. The challenge pits one class against the other for the client’s “business.” The winner is decided based on the quality, ease and speed of producing the fuel.

“As a class, we had to keep the client happy while still dealing with his constraints,” McCraw says, like time and cost. “Our class received a first-hand experience of the design process that real-life engineers face daily.”
The idea originated with Bob Davis, chair of the chemical engineering department at UVa. and professor of the one of the classes. He wanted to show students the importance of chemical engineering in the world, especially as energy sources become more scarce.

Thanks to campus buses, alternative fuels are more than a vague concept for these students. This fall, UVa. began using biodiesel to fuel its 30-bus fleet. Mark Aronson, the associate professor of chemical engineering teaching the other class, says that seeing biodiesel in action brings the issue home for students. “It’s helped the kids understand that biodiesel is a real thing, that it is being used commercially.”

How biodiesel can help the environment and its impact on the energy situation are two important lessons Aronson hopes the students will learn from the project. But he’s also hoping they’ll learn to separate fact from fiction. “People talk about biodiesel as being a way to break our dependence on foreign oil—that is certainly not the case,” he says. “As technical people, they can’t believe everything that they read.”

Even if every pound of vegetable oil produced in the United States was turned into biodiesel, Aronson says, it would be enough to replace only 14 percent of the diesel fuel used in the United States. Still, he says, “solving the country’s energy problem is going to take many different solutions—and this is one.”

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor of Prism.


A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu
A POWERFUL FORCE - By Alice Daniel
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Celebrating Bicentennials - By Henry Petroski
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE - Some engineering students manage to squeeze study abroad into their tight schedules. - By Margaret Loftus
TEACHING: A Push for Participation - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: The Engine That Soared - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Fuel for Thought - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: In Search of a Sputnik Moment - By Daniel Mark Fogel


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