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Features Science & Tech


wednesday, september 21, 2011 • Page 5

Recycled vegetable oil offers a renewable fuel to diesel vehicles without extra cost—they call it biodiesel. Story By Mark Herring | Graphic By Taylor Cashdan | photo By

Jade loring


here are more than 30 gas stations within a four-mile radius of N.C. State, but only one of those offers something different apart from cigarette deals—local biodiesel. Unlike other types of biofuels, biodiesel is made from used vegetable oil. Any diesel engine can run off it without any conversions, according to Chris Jude, Piedmont Biofuels fuel production manager. Unlike corn or sugarcane ethanol, biodiesels are derived from ubiquitous restaurant grease, which, with a little bit of chemistry, can turn into fuel with almost the same potential energy as traditional diesel.

“It’s pretty simple—biodiesel is compatible with any diesel engine,” Jude said. “If you have a diesel engine, you can just fill up. You can fill up completely on biodiesel or even mix it with regular diesel.” Piedmont Biofuels distributes their converted vegetable oil to their co-op members at a pump near the Five Points district, and the biodiesel they sell is cheaper than their competitors diesel prices by 15 cents. “A gallon of biodiesel is $3.75,” Jude said. “The average for diesel fuel is about $4.00.” According to Larry Larson, co-op member biodiesel proponent, there is little noticeable performance difference when his car is running on diesel or biodiesel. Larson, owner of coffee roaster Larry’s Beans, lets Piedmont Biofuels distribute their biodiesel by his warehouse on 1509 Gavin Street. “Sometimes I might think there is a little more pep with regular diesel,” Larson said. “The biggest difference would be the smell. It does smell like the midway at the fairgrounds. Sometimes it’s a little french fry-y or Chinese restaurant-y, but I don’t mind it.” But biodiesel consumers can’t stop by any french fry joint or Chinese restaurant to get their fix. According to Jude, there are four essential steps to turn vegetable oil into fuel.

Debunking the myths: There is a common misconception that biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are more expensive to produce than petroleum-based fuels, but according to Jude, gasoline and diesel are the least efficient of the bunch. “On the spectrum, petroleum ranks pretty low,” Jude said. “Now, they do produce more energy per unit, but they consume a lot more during their refining and distribution. Gas and diesel are at about .83 units of energy output per one unit of energy input.” Despite the energy involved in fertilizing, cultivating, harvesting and processing grain ethanol, the energy output per unit input is only 1.2, according to Jude. Biodiesel tops the list at 3.5 units of energy output per one unit of input. “Let’s say you’re growing a virgin soy bean crop—not being used for restaurant grease,” Jude said. “If you trace the energy from planting, fertilizing, harvesting, pressing it and distributing it, it’s still cheaper than petroleum.” According to Larson, biodiesel plays a part in a more sustainable future. “Biofuels are part of the equation, they’re not the answer,” Larson said.

Collection Piedmont Biofuels gathers restaurant oil from a 100-mile radius around its headquarters in Pittsboro, NC, according to Jude. “We collect our oil from restaurants in the Triangle,” Jude said. “We pay for the grease of

Transesterification the businesses we collect from.” The co-op equips its clients with bins and dumpsters that a tanker collects on a consistent basis and transports back to the processing plant in Pittsboro.

Filtering and purification

After use in restaurants, the vegetable oil must be filtered before it can be converted into biodiesel. “We filter out the water and fried bits from the oil,” Jude said. “You don’t want that in your engine.”

Before the processors can start converting the triglicerides of vegetable oil into the methyl esters of biodiesel, the grease must be as clean as possible.

Vegetable oil is a plant-based form of triglyercides, but to mimic petrodiesel, it must go through a process in which it’s converted into a fatty acid methyl ester, getting rid of a glycerol group. This process involves adding methanol, a type of alcohol, to the vegetable oil. To speed up the reaction, the mix must be heated just under 158

Lab testing

Before Piedmont Biofuels distributes its biodiesel, it takes the new product to the lab to test for quality and purity. “We want to make sure everything is working right before you pump it into your car,” Jude said.

degrees, the evaporation point of alcohol. The addition of a strong base, like sodium hydroxide or sodium sodium methoxide will catalyze the reaction, lowering the amount of energy required to covert the mix into fuel. “The transesterification causes the glycerin from the oil molecule to drop out, leaving the fatty acids to bond to methanol,” Jude said.

“A gallon of our biodiesel has 120,000 BTUs per gallon. Regular diesel is 130,000 BTUs.” One BTU, British thermal unit, is the equivalent of the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water from 39 to 40 degrees.

Penn students bring social network to pre-meds Ivy-League sophomores create site to educate premedical students—and themselves. Mark Herring Features Editor

Nebiyu Osman said he was dumbstruck after reading a Wired article this summer on the top five reasons to hate premed students. The pre-med sophomore from the University of Pennsylvania was looking for a summer job when he got the idea to make a social network to take the edge out of the pre-med track. “I was thinking about it, and it’s so true why people don’t like pre-meds,” Osman said. “They’re really competitive and cut-throat, but as an aspiring doctor, I wish it didn’t have to be that way.” With the help of a teammate, Ainesh Ravi, on the Penn cross country team, Osman set to design the Pre-Med Authority, a social media website for premed students to gain knowledge on different medical fields and connect with each other in a non-threatening environment—and they’re looking to expand outside of Pennsylva-

nia and to North Carolina. The ally like.” Osman said the development site should be accessible to N.C. of the Pre-Med Authority was State students today. “A lot of the ideas and mo- an altruistic way for him to do tivation comes from my frus- his research for medical school. “I’m going to have to do this tration as a freshman,” Osman said. “For me, being an athlete work anyway, so I may as well and taking academics seriously help some other people out was tough. And since there are and leave a paper trail,” Osman said. “If so many peoyou’re going ple, especially to dedicate on my camyour college pus looking life to this to go to med goa l, and school, it can your life afbe intimidatterwards, you ing.” are going to T he P re need to know Med Authorthis is what ity integrates you want to blogs f rom do.” pre-med stuOsman dents, interstressed the v iews w it h importance doctors and Nebiyu Osman, sophomore of students uploaded from University of Pennsylvania exploring the notes on opportuniwhich core classes to take give students ties in medicine. As the son exposure to different types of of a physician, Osman said medical professions and tips he had increased exposure to to boosting their potential, medicine, but it’s not enough for him to know exactly what according to Osman. “You’re not going to get the he wasn’t to do. “I was talking to a doctor at a opportunity to shadow everybody,” Osman said. “Through hospital in Philly and he said, our doctor interviews and ‘Honestly, I didn’t know what I blogs, we want to shed a lot of was getting myself into,’ when light on what this career is re- I asked him about getting into

“The goal of the website is to give pre-med students the opportunity to connect with students on their campus mainly.”

med school. He said, ‘Thank derbilt University, Penn State God I love my career,’ but I and University of Pittsburgh don’t want to be at the point. are members. As the site grows To me, it’s terrifying—to hand and catches on with these stuover your life to this profes- dent bodies, Osman said he sion—especially because it’s is looking to expand to other universities. self-inflicted.” With four medical schools The development of the site isn’t complete and Osman in-state, Osman said North sees the network growing as Carolina students are a good demographic for the website. he grows as a student. “We’d love have a base at “In the site’s current form, it’s probably meant for more fresh- N.C. State, Duke, Chapel Hill,” man and sophomores,” Osman Osman said. “There are plenty said. “With our platform for of good schools in N.C.” Asha Nadabar, a junior in bibloggers, we will have more blog posts with their experi- ological sciences and pre-med ences applying to med school student, said she sees the site and making their personal as a beneficial supplement to her connections with the Prestatements.” The Pre-Med Authority is not Health Club. “The whole pre-med atmojust looking for users, but also top students to help contribute sphere is really competitive, but content, including blog posts, sadly that’s how it is,” Nadabar said. samples of “The Preresumes, Health and interClub gives views with you a lot practicing of oppordoctors tunities to learn about the reand researchers. “I thought it would be a cool sources and getting to know idea of pocket money,” Osman other people, but I would look said. “If you want to do that, in to it to see what this website you have to make your content can offer.” Unlike the organization of good, and we would pay contributors as we look into getting the Pre-Health Club on campus, Osman’s experience at grants.” At this point, U-Penn, Van- Penn is different and less in-

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What the Pre-Med Authority has to offer • • • • •

What the Pre-Med Authority had to offer: Interviews with practicing doctors Blog posts by successful students Posted notes for core courses A class catalog similar to N.C. State degree audit, synched with university registrar Information on applications for medical school and different fields of medicine Source: Nebiyu Osman

teractive. “The goal of the website is to give pre-med students the opportunity to connect with students on their campus mainly,” Osman said. “Even though these pre-med organizations exist, I see a social network being less intimidating for a student to research and inquire forinformation.” Ankita Gautam, a senior in biochemistry, said she would use the site to share class work. “I think it would be cool to

Pre-med continued page 6


What the pre-meD authority has to oFFer Debunking the myths: Ivy-League sophomores create site to educate pre- medical students—and themselv...